Sometimes I’m a Pharisee. It creeps up when I’m not paying attention. I’m thankful to get ugly glimpses of it now and again, mostly so I can stop, look it in the eye, and make a mid-course correction. But it also gives me a certain sympathy for the real Pharisees. They truly did start out so well. Their hearts were in the right place….
Around the 3rd century BC, as near as anyone can tell, the Pharisees got their start, primarily as a reaction to the increasing Hellenization (or Greekification) which was threatening Jewish religion by introducing pagan rites and rituals into the mix. The Pharisees (or separated ones) sought to re-elevate Jewish law and protect Jewish religion from being polluted by the immorality of the culture around them. So far, so good. The evangelical church does the same thing all the time, as we should. We would be foolish not to hold up our culture against the gospel, and to evaluate our world in light of God’s wisdom.
Where the Pharisees went wrong is a longer story, and it’s one we can learn from. They didn’t make a spectacular slide into prideful thinking and arrogant power-mongering. Nothing happened overnight. Instead, the Pharisees set out in the right direction and, in slow and subtle ways, they got lost. It was a creep towards where they ultimately landed. How did it happen?
First, they got popular. There were many Jews who chafed and rebelled at Greek rule. The Pharisees fought Greek domination, not militarily, but in the way that mattered the most to many people – the Pharisees preserved spiritual independence and integrity by restoring the centrality of Mosaic law. And the people loved them for it.
Secondly, they got powerful. The ancient historian Josephus estimated that at one point there were over 6,000 strict Pharisees among the Palestinian Jews, a number some guess to be about 5% of the population. As they grew in influence, they began extrapolating from the written law and adding to it. …And then adding some more… until pretty soon, the Jewish people were daily forced into excruciating observances of hairsplitting rules. If they disobeyed or overlooked one of these rules, the consequences were often public and shameful. Additionally, the Pharisees held important seats in the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court. By the time of Herod the Great, even Roman rulers worked not to offend the Pharisees because of their influence over the people.
Third, they grew prideful. As most sinful human beings would, the Pharisees let their popularity and power go to their heads, and they became prideful. In their pride, they became arbiters of God’s law, and carelessly burdened the people with all of the extras mentioned above. They became self-righteous – more concerned that they would be seenfor their good deeds than they were about the motive behind those good deeds. In their pride, the Pharisees spent more and more time and effort circling their wagons to self-protect – and by this time, they had a lot to protect. What began as a singular focus to protect God’s law became a protection of their own power and influence. When Jesus began his public ministry, his popularity so threatened the Pharisees that they began to seek alignment with another sect (the Sadducees, with whom they often clashed) to bring Jesus down.
Lastly, they became blind. Popularity led to power; power led to pride. The final step was the Pharisees’ pride leading to utter blindness. One of the most tragic ironies in Scripture is the story of a group of men committed to being stewards of God’s word, and then ultimately rejecting the Messiah who had been prophesied throughout the very books they studied. The truth no longer matched their agenda.
And so, the moral of this story for us is…what?
Is it that we should resist popularity and power because it will lead to pride and then ultimately, spiritual blindness? I don’t know. Maybe. And, maybe not. I wonder sometimes if there is a larger “meta-moral” to this story. Truly, I wonder if the creep towards becoming a Pharisee doesn’t begin with the issue of control. An identical twin to pride, the need to control is the oldest and, most common of sins and – recognize it or not – it is based in the desire to become like God. More concerning is the fact that it speaks of our lack of belief that God himself has all things under control. Beyond being merely responsible, we go ahead and arrange circumstances such that we can create predictable outcomes; we prefer the binary thinking of a cause-and-effect, works-oriented gospel, and we get fussy if things don’t go our way.
Sometimes I worry when I see this mindset creeping into a group setting. Whether it is a successful church, a powerful para-church organization, or a coalition of like-minded theologians – any time a group becomes popular (be careful!), and then powerful (uh-oh), and then maybe they believe they need to be guardians of some kind of right thinking (don’t go over the edge!) – then it is time for us to pay close attention to their representation of the spirit of the law, and not just the particular letter of the law that they represent.
Jesus verbally whipped the Pharisees and called them out on their controlling hypocrisy, but what the Pharisees really exemplified was a lack of belief in God’s sovereignty, and they had the nerve to dress it up in spiritual clothes. Jesus said, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also (Matthew 23:25-26).
Like I said, I am a Pharisee sometimes. I know that my outside and my inside don’t always match. I like control. I find it much easier to address external behaviors than to address my own pride. Maybe sometimes you’re a Pharisee, too. This means that our church probably has a few symptoms, as well. What are we to do? What is the meta-moral to the story of the Pharisees? Not to be too simplistic, but maybe we could boil it down to this: Stay on your toes, because you’re never as righteous as you think you are. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and don’t you dare even think about trying to earn God’s favor after he sacrificed his Son for your sake. Enjoy the mystery of what you can’t understand, because you’re never going to get it all figured out anyway, and let that lead you to worship ahead of works.
SBCC is far from a perfect church. I know because I am a part of it and I contribute lots of imperfection. I have been a part of this church family since college. It is home for me in so many ways. But, if the day should ever come that we stop wrestling with our own pride, or that we begin to vault our own traditions level with the gospel, or that we abandon the spirit of the law of grace, well then, I guess I would sadly leave. Don’t worry, because I think we’re on solid ground with respect to knowing how needy and how flawed we are. We simply need to be aware that we’re as vulnerable to the creep of Pharisee-ism as the next guy, girl, or group. And it’s great news that God knows our proclivities and continually reminds us of this in Scripture.
Be still and know that I am God. That’s good, simple counsel for t he prevention of Pharisee creep.