I came across something I wrote in a Facebook post a few years ago and wanted to post a modified and expanded version of it here. It is not uncommon to hear someone call a Christian a Pharisee because they take a firm stand on Christian faith and practice. Unfortunately, I think this misconstrues a Pharisaical position with the requirements for Christian faith and practice that Scripture commands. Christians should be people of conviction and a desire for obedience. Scripture does call for repentance, to change our minds about following sin, and following Christ instead. I’ve also heard Pharisees identified as people who love law. Well, that’s insufficient because Paul says the law is good and provides us with an ethical standard. We should take God’s moral law serious.
I think we need to consider a bit more about the rise of the Pharisees and what motivated them to take the positions they took. The Pharisee sect arose during the second temple period after the return from exile. Now let’s think for minute what was going on at this time. Israel was back in the land that God had promised but was without God’s promised leadership of a king and God’s beacon of light to the nations. Israel was operating under a kind of plan B status because of their rebellion against God, who swore to remove them from his presence. The Pharisees were a separatist group who took God’s law most serious, especially in light of the loss that Israel had experienced. They did not want to lose again, if you will, and sought to tighten the reigns to make sure that every jot and tittle of the law was obeyed.
But in their separatist mentality, the Pharisees’ concern for righteousness before God caused them to uphold their own righteousness as the standard against which all was measured. This actually caused them to add to the law just to make sure everything was “right” before God. They were more concerned with preserving their way of life than following the giver of life, especially if it meant seeing beyond the comfort of what they had determined as righteousness. This is why Jesus rebuked them.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt. 23:23-26)
Since they were the determiners of righteousness, there was no mercy for those who did not measure up, only judgment. Consequently, they were quick to condemn others who transgressed their way of thinking. They were quick to point out the sins of others while taking no account of their own. They were blind to their own folly and hypocrisy. They were more concerned about outward appearances than inward renewal. They could not see the ways in which God might be moving beyond their rigid lines because those ways would not lead to their right paths in their own minds. They did not care about those outside of their rigid lines, the marginalized or oppressed or their concerns. If fact, they bristled at even the mention of those concerns and made the marginalized the ones in the wrong. In short, the zeal of the Pharisees was a weapon that slashed and burned the way of grace, the method of mercy and the foundation of love for God and neighbor.
But I think in our humanity, we are hard wired for self-righteousness and can quickly take on Pharisaical attitudes even when condemning them. We can readily adopt a tone of moral superiority when people don’t measure up to where we think they ought to be. We can allow fear of a lack of acceptance to add to the requirements to others to the point that acceptance as members of God’s own household is contingent upon our extra requirements.
Thank God for his mercy, his grace and truth through the Son even when we don’t measure up. We can be people that operate out of that mercy, grace, and truth and remember that often God’s ways are higher than ours. Who knows what he’s doing in the life of those people we want to condemn for not measuring up? After all, look at his long suffering towards us.