In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT  violating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

One thought on “In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)”

  1. Interesting study. I agree that we often fail to recognize that the Pharisees were in many ways “the good guys” of their time. (Something I can’t bring myself to say about the Saducees)

    Like

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