Are you a modern-day Pharisee?
In the Bible, Jesus is often seen harshly criticizing one particular sect of people called Pharisees.
“Woe to you, Pharisees”, “Don’t be like the Pharisees”, etc were quite common in his talk. Jesus was a reformer and wanted to change the perspective of religion from the concept of law to love. The Pharisees on the other hand, held the law by the book, literally, and weren’t amused with Jesus’ narrative, ending up in feuds and dissents. I would like to talk about what the Pharisees believed in that irked Jesus and then compare and contrast that to our present-day Christian life which leads us to the question, Are you a modern-day Pharisee?
Jesus in Matthew 16:12 termed the teaching of the Pharisees as “Yeast of the Pharisees”. He was particularly annoyed with their belief system which was against his advocacy of love and inclusiveness. Here are 5 things that the Pharisees were bent upon, that Jesus contradicted and challenged. You could evaluate and see if you have strains of the Pharisaical DNA that you might want to get rid of!
Conformance to Law
Christ’s manifesto was unconditional love. A love that transcends race, colour, social status, religious beliefs, etc. The very act of his sacrifice on the cross was born out of love. Remember John 3:16 — For God so “loved” the world that He gave his only begotten son.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus talks about three sects of people — the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. Both the priest and the Levite are strict followers of the law. They have duties in the temple of God that restrict them from doing certain things — like attending to a bloodied, dying man on the roadside — which would render them unclean. Both of them held the law above humanity and so decided to let the man die.
The Samaritans are generally resented by the Jews because of their practice of intermarrying with the Assyrians and ruining their purity of Abrahamic descent. They did not believe in the prophets and in a way had a religion of their own which was detested and considered blasphemous by the Jews. Yet, Jesus acknowledged, that the Samaritan was the one who knew the heart of God than the priest and the Levite.
Proverbs 10:12 says love covers all sins. In short, there is no religion or law above humanity and love. James 1:27 — Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
It cannot be more precise!
In Matthew 12, when the Pharisees questioned Jesus about observing the day of the Sabbath, he replied in verses 11 to 12 — “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.
Jesus focussed on the “attitude of love” more than the tradition.
Well, coming to the present day, do we Christians sometimes hold the law or our religion above love and humanity? For example, in the recent Israel Palestine conflict, did we look at it as a humanitarian mishap or as religious warfare? Innocent lives were lost on both sides, isn’t it?
Ok, let me throw another challenge. Let’s say, if God appears in front of you and commands you to slap your friend hard — Please don’t get mad at me. I am sure God will never do something silly like that but for the sake of this argument let say he does ask you — the question is, will you resort to “obeying” God and hurt your friend or “disobey” God and hold on to humanity and love that Christ professed?
Discrimination based on our faith
The Pharisees are infamous for their outward demonstration of faith like tithing, conforming to Jewish traditions, etc. They had a particular pride in their religion. Jesus came quite hard on them, on this. Matthew 23:27 — “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean”
In the gospel of Luke, I like how the author introduces the parable of, the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Luke 18:9 starts like this — “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable”.
And then the chapter proceeds to verses 10 to 14 — Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Here’s my question for the present day, do we Christians look down upon people of other faiths? Do we feel entitled because of our hope of salvation? Do we have the heart to respect other people’s opinions and agree to disagree gracefully?
Hating sin and sinners
Jesus excelled in his inclusiveness. Be it sinners, gentiles, sick people, lepers — he did not have a problem embracing them, even though tradition forbid it. The Pharisees had a problem with this. Though Jesus is seen being hard on the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the teachers of the law, he was surprisingly calm and loving towards the outcast of the society.
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about having food with the tax collectors — who were generally regarded as sinners — he answered them in Luke 5:31 — “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”
If you interpret this scene in today’s world, it is quite equivalent to dining with atheists, call girls, homosexuals, drug peddlers, etc. From a Pharisee’s point of view, it appeared to be wrong to have any affinity with such people, but yet Jesus included these people in his ministry.
Do we Christians have a perception of sinners of today’s world?
Upholding of traditions which is a form of idolatry
It is written in Mark 7:3 — The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with this. But if you look at the next verse it will be evident how the Pharisees have some sort of arrogant pride about adherence and get offended when it’s broken.
Verse 5 — So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
Jesus retaliated with a quote from Isaiah 29:13. Mark chapter 7 verse 6 onwards — Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.
Jesus expounded on this further in verse 8 — You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.
Traditions are like idolatry which God does not like. They are there to serve as a reminder of things that are important to our faith. But traditions should never supersede the original intention and when it does, it becomes idolatry. That’s what happened with the Pharisees. Rituals like Passover, circumcision, etc were observed as a memorial to be thankful to God but became quite the opposite because of their attitude to “do it” rather than be grateful.
In Luke 16:15, it says, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight”
Let’s take our present-day Christianity. What are the traditions that actually started out as reminders to be grateful, which have in fact lost focus and become idols for us? What are the various rituals we Christians follow, without even knowing why it is done? Are we doing certain things only to fulfill a tradition?
Resisting change that Jesus was an advocate for
Jesus was a reformer who insisted on radically challenging and changing traditional practices — while the Pharisees resisted change and wanted to safely continue what was told. These two schools of thought are literally two ends of the spectrum.
Take for instance, when Jesus in Matthew 22:40 said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” — condensing the entire 10 commandments into just 2, it was not something the Pharisees could accept. But, Jesus kept challenging the law and inspired them to look at the “why” than the “what”. Unfortunately, the Pharisees like most of us Christians, are ignorant of the power of “why”.
Try asking this question why in everything you do and that will inadvertently change your perspective of doing things. Bible reading and prayer is “what” we are supposed to do, but throw in a “why”, like why should I read the Bible and pray? that will give you a whole new world of perspective. Similarly, practices like going to Church, getting baptized, even spreading the gospel — have we ever sat to think, why?
There is world of difference between having faith in God and following a religion. The Pharisees followed a religion while Jesus encouraged building the right faith in God. Jesus reformed religion with a progressive mindset whereas the Pharisees weren’t even willing to evolve or adapt.
Always remember, Religion dictates while faith discerns.
When the word of God and Christianity was caught within the clutches of the Roman empire, it took a man named Martin Luther to challenge the message that was forcefully impressed on people and gave a headstart to the reformation of Christianity. You and I enjoy the liberty of having the word of God in our hands today because someone in the past risked their life and stood for what Jesus professed — which is to challenge, evolve, adapt, include and progress.
John 14:12 — Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.
The question is, are we Christians ready to be challenged?
Are we willing to be like Jesus or, are we just modern-day Pharisees?