Friday, April 8, 2011

Jesus and the Pharisees

Why did Jesus give the Pharisees such a hard time?
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in (Matthew 23:13, KJV)
I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won't let anyone else in either. (Matthew 23:13, The Message).
Growing up, I was told that Jesus fiercely condemned the Pharisees because, basically, they were the “bad guys”. Their seminal sin was their hypocrisy; they taught one thing, yet they did another. The message I received was a warning against insincerity.

Now, after many years considering the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, I now believe that my earlier assessment was unduly harsh and a little misguided. It’s not that I now think that Jesus was unjustified in his criticism – he certainly was, rather that it’s not all about insincerity and it has much to tell us in our modern 21st Century environment.

Let me start by proposing that the Pharisees were not the pathological “bad guys” I had been led to believe.

I say this because I don’t believe the Bible separates people into pathological “bad guys” and pathological “good guys”. I believe that this tendency to separate people into pathologically “good” and “evil” camps actually arises from Gnosticism, and the Bible is staunchly anti-Gnostic. It also arises from Hollywood, but that’s another story.

Sure, the Bible talks about the “righteous” and the “wicked”, most prominently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, but it also describes saints who sin (e.g. David in 2 Samuel 24:10), and sinners who do the right thing (e.g. Rahab in Joshua 2, see also Hebrews 11:31). The picture that emerges is not that we are either pathologically “good” or “evil”, but that we all have the same potential to do good or evil, and we all live out those potentials to greater or lesser degrees.

It follows then, that no human being is pathologically evil, not even the most Pharisee-est of the Pharisees. Incidentally, that’s how Paul described himself before his conversion (Phil 3:4-6), but the fact that he converted at all demonstrates my point.

This doesn’t solve the problem of sin, because none of us are pathologically good either; that’s a quality that belongs to God alone (see Luke 18:19). There is sin in all of us and it is present in all we do, even when we are at our best, and no amount of religion can purge it from us (see Hebrews 10:1-4).

If we are all in the same boat, why, then, do the Pharisees get singled out for a special roasting from the Boss (so to speak)? Let’s pick up the story from before Jesus’ entry onto the scene.

Its worth noting that its probably wrong to view the Pharisees as a religious cult that was based on a systematic theology. In my view, it’s better to regard Pharisaicism as a religiously conservative movement that considered itself to be the guardian and custodian of Jewish culture and identity. Josephus describes the Pharisees as a popular and powerful faction, ascetic in lifestyle, concerned to present themselves as rigorists for the Torah (Antiquities 18:12-17) (New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 2004).

The story of the Pharisees starts in post-exilic Judea, in the period between the Old and New Testaments. The Jews have returned from exile, having been chastened by their experiences. Their prophets interpret the exile as God’s judgment on them for their sins, and their restoration to the land as God’s faithfulness to His covenanted people. Not wanting to repeat the experience, the Jews took their scriptures to heart, in particular such passages as Leviticus 25:18;
Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land.

This experience of God’s judgment provided the spur for improving the religion of the Jews. I imagine that the reasoning would be something like “we got kicked out because we failed to properly obey the law, so we need to get better at doing religion.” Among others, the Pharisees then set about codifying the law and extrapolating it so that it governed every aspect of life in the community.

For example, the commandment to desist from work on the Sabbath was well established, but when did a legitimate activity, such as traveling, qualify as “work”? The Pharisees’ solution to this particular quandary was to define an allowable distance that one could travel on the Sabbath without falling foul of the prohibition on work. This is evident in the phrase “a Sabbath-day’s walk”, which is used to describe the distance from Jerusalem to the Mount Olivet in Acts 1:12. It’s about 5/8 of a mile or 1 kilometer.

Other instances would seem to us, particularly with respect to maintaining ritual cleanness around the most important feasts of the year…

A fascinating example of the lengths to which rabbinic precautions could go concerns a man who had a boil and wanted treatment for it at [Passover]. If a physician cut it off, then the moment it was severed from the body it became dead tissue. Contact with it would render anyone unclean and physician or patient or both were almost certain to be disqualified from keeping the feast. So the procedure was that the physician cut enough to leave the boil hanging by a thread. It was still part of the man’s body and thus living and not defiling. The patient then stuck it on a thorn and pulled away from it smartly, thus severing it from his body. In this way, neither of them touched the defiling tissue and both were able to keep the feast (Kerithoth 3:8)! (The Atonement, Leon Morris, page 94)

It would seem that an inordinate amount of effort was spent in avoiding defilement and ritual cleansing. I believe that this would lead to an unresolved tension between those who focused on doing the law, and those who focused on doing what the law was for, much like the tension between the Temple Cult and the Old Testament Prophets in the centuries preceding the Exile.

However, this movement also fostered two developments that are vitally important to my current enquiry;
1 The Temple in Jerusalem consolidated and grew as the focus of the community’s religion and self-identity
2 A genuine missionary effort was launched from Jerusalem to take the scriptures into surrounding provinces, including Galilee.

I consider that, like modern Christian missionary efforts, the missionary thrust of the Pharisees focused on taking the scriptures to “all nations” with the intent of discipling them in the ways of the Lord. Given that previous efforts relied on individual initiatives (e.g. Jonah), the Pharisees might have been the first, organized missionary movement. Hand in hand with this proclamation was an effort to increase the literacy of the common folk to such an extent that many of the adult males could read, though only a few could write. The irony here is that we Christians owe the writing of the New Testament largely to the Pharisees (whom we love to hate) and their commendable efforts to educate their Galilean neighbors in the art of reading and writing.

It’s not as if the Pharisees failed to create and sustain a law-keeping system either. In fact, they not only succeeded in implementing it from generation to generation; they optimized it.

These outcomes might seem counter-intuitive, but consider the thrust of Jesus’ denunciations in Matthew 23. In Matthew 23:15, Jesus acknowledges the missionary efforts of the Pharisees and the extraordinary lengths they went to in their proselytizing. In Matthew 23:16-22 Jesus addresses their elaborate methods for arranging oaths in a kind of hierarchy (which they used to get out of certain commitments). In Matthew 23:23-24 Jesus addresses their tithing. What is striking about these judgments is not just the ferocity of the language, but that Jesus does not condemn them for failing to practice their God-given religion successfully, and this is the critical point I wish to make.

The fact is that the Pharisees were successful at practicing and implementing a religion that had been ordained by God. So why, then, did Jesus give them such a hard time?

The question could be answered, rightly, with the word “hypocrisy” but, again, we need to set this word in context to see just what Jesus meant when he used it.

One of the oddities of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Galilean ministry is that though they are firmly set in the landscape of Galilee they make no mention of the biggest town in that region at the time – Sepphoris ( see Sepphoris was predominantly Jewish and wealthy enough to support a new-fangled luxury of modern life – a theater. The good citizens of Sepphoris would retire there for an evening’s light entertainment and watch the actors. The Greek word for actor is “hypocrit├ęs”, the Latin is “hypocrita” and the literal English rendition is “hypocrite” (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, 2008). Though our modern word conveys a pejorative sense, it’s meaning in Jesus’ day meant, literally, someone pretending to be something that they weren’t, and it could be used in the legitimate sense of play-acting.

I might add that religious conservatives reviled the acting profession because the “actors” occasionally (often?) performed lewd live or simulated sex acts. For example, Clement of Alexandria advises a Bishop to require a converted actor to change his profession, probably for these reasons (citation needed). Also, potential disconnects between the actors’ “real” lives and on-stage personas might have been common knowledge, so its not unlikely that the first century term “hypocrite” could have had the negative connotations that it does today.

In its unadorned state, then, Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees is that they were pretending to be something that they weren’t. They performed their religion in public but it was disconnected to their inner, private life. When they were “on stage”, they would make a great show of their piety, but when they weren’t they would use their religion to cheat, lie, steal and murder. They had taken God’s Holy law and used it for their own nefarious purposes.

The way I think of it is that they drew a very definitive line between those areas of life that were controlled by their religion, and those areas in which they did what they pleased. The worst of them found ways of using their religion to abuse their neighbors, but its probably unfair to regard all Pharisees so negatively. Many of them, I suspect, were simply trying to live Godly lives, much like the religious conservatives of today from the Southern US to the middle east.

However, their God-given religion and Temple had failed to deliver them to God; else they would not have done the things they did and they would not have suffered under his judgement. This is plain enough from the Gospel narratives, but it leads to a nagging question; why did their God-given religion fail to deliver? This, I believe, is a profoundly important question, and it probably provides the impetus for the writing of the New Testament. I call it the failure of religion.

According to the scriptures the God-given law of Moses and the Temple system should have delivered its devotees to God and yet it didn’t. The solution to this problem, as presented in the New Testament, was not that the religion needed to be improved – Jesus and his followers had seen that the Pharisees and other rigorists had already optimized it. No. The solution offered in the New Testament is that no religion, not even an optimized God-given law and Temple, could possibly deliver a person from bondage to sin into the Kingdom. There are no paths that we can follow that will lead us to God. Instead, we are wholly reliant on God breaking into our world. It is He, and He alone, that delivers, not our religion, our temple, our law or our anything-else.

The picture that emerges in my mind is a Pharisee praying towards the altar, and Jesus tapping him on the shoulder. The Pharisee ignores the interruption, and concerns himself with finishing his prayers. The irony is that the true object of his prayers, and the true answer to them is standing right behind him, in the person of Jesus.

Jesus gave the Pharisees a hard time not because they failed to be sincerely religious but, ultimately, because they had rejected him. He had a right to be angry with them because he was the one whom their religion should have delivered them to, and he was the one who alone could deliver them from their sins and into their true inheritance.

Like the Pharisees, what we need to learn from this is that we should cease to put our faith in our religion, our righteousness or our anything-else, and begin to put it in the One who can, and does, truly deliver.

1 comment:

  1. Received from Simon in UK via Facebook...

    Hi Martin. Good to see that you are still skiing off piste.Enjoyed reading your article on the pharisees and Jesus. Amazing that the one they were looking for,they missed when he was right under their own nose.