Devotional: Not Like These Pharisees

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach’” (Matthew 23:1,3).

Imagine yourself in a grocery store with your young child or grandchild in the cart. Imagine another parent or grandparent in the aisle with you, also with a young child. Imagine the other parent becoming momentarily distracted and their child grabbing a candy bar, unwrapping it, and enjoying the chocolate. Picture the parent’s reaction when they realize what has happened, the scolding, and their hasty retreat to the register to pay for the chocolate. Imagine your relaxed and good-natured smile at the scene.

Then imagine that the perpetrator was your child or grandchild. Imagine that you were the distracted parent. Imagine the moment of realization for you. Feel the anxiety, embarrassment, and righteous indignation.

The truth is that a parent or grandparent would be much more likely to have a harsher reaction to their own child than to a stranger’s child. Our children are a reflection of us. Their behavior is perceived as a reflection of our values and our nurturing. We expect more from our own than from a stranger.

Why did Jesus save some of his harsher criticism for Pharisees? Perhaps the answer lies in the grocery store story. Could it be that Jesus was more aligned with the teaching of Pharisees than the other people groups in his time? Could it be that he and Pharisees were like theological family members who kept their strongest words of rebuke within the family?

What Scripture does not teach us, but extra-biblical sources do teach us, is that there were at least eight different schools of Pharisees in the first century. While these schools are not named in the Bible, Jesus seems to know them well. Matthew 23 contains a section about woes that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The woes parallel the theological positions of most of the eight schools.

Without going into too much detail, and as an example, one of the schools was nicknamed the Bent-Nose Pharisees. It was recorded that lusting and adultery were the greatest sins in their listing of sins, and it was said that one of these Pharisees would be so careful not to commit this sin that, whenever he approached a woman on the street, he would turn his head and close his eyes so as not to lust. Inevitably he would run into a pole or wall and hurt or break his nose.

“Woe to you, you whitewashed tomb!” cried Jesus, “You look good on the outside, but your inside is unclean.”

Was it wrong to avoid lust and adultery? Of course not! The truth in the teaching is in Torah. But the Bent-Nose Pharisee went too far. To make himself appear more righteous than others, he displayed silliness. What a self-righteous display! How hypocritical!

Or to put it Jesus’ way: “Do what they say. But don’t practice how they practice.”

Rabbi Ben Tzitzit was a righteous rabbi. But to put on a show for others, he wore tzitzit (the tassels on the corners of his robe) that were extra-long. They dragged along on the ground. He even changed his name to Ben Tzitzit (son of tassels). What a showy, self-righteous hypocrite!

To us, the words of woe seem a little over the top. They seem harsh and condemning. For those of us who lead in Christian schools, we choose words carefully and tactfully. We must. We are attuned to our cultural norms and to sensitivities. In Jesus’ time, speaking frankly and directly was normal. Questioning the views of other reputed teachers was expected. And, if the Pharisees and Jesus were theological brothers, all the more reason to challenge them when their practices did not match their words.

There are seven woes recorded in Matthew 23. There were eight schools of Pharisees. The eighth school was the “Pharisees of Love.” They were humble, righteous, and practiced what they preached.

Love God above all! Every school agreed.

Love your neighbor next. Not everyone agreed that this would be on their priority list.

Some Pharisees and rabbis put Sabbath observance second. Some put lust or adultery or idol worship second. Some had a short list of rules, while the list for others was long.

Teacher, what is the greatest command? “Love God!”

And then our rabbi continued: love each other.

The Pharisees of Love nodded their approval. Others frowned in disagreement. Some began to question each other, debating whether adultery, coveting, or Sabbath observance were more important and why the yoke of the rabbi from Capernaum failed to mention the priorities on their yokes. This was the rabbinic way.

Why did Jesus declare some Pharisees to be self-righteous hypocrites? Because their theology was good (do what they say), but their practices were unaligned (some of them do not apply in practice what they preach).

If Jesus was most closely aligned with the Pharisees, it makes good sense that he was most critical of his theological family, wanting them to be the righteous, pious ones that they professed to be.

We are called to lead like Jesus. As his disciples, we must do more than speak his words. We must put into practice what we preach. When we do not, we have become woefully like “some” of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.

Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services

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