Mean, Angry Pharisees


The  most faithful group in Jesus time was the one called “Pharisees.”  Their name means “separate.”  It communicates in a nutshell how they understood faithfulness.  Separateness meant avoiding impurity of any kind keeping all the rules most scrupulously, and expressing their righteousness in every aspect of life, even the smallest matters of diet and clothing.  Toward this end they had the hep of a body of scholars known as the scribes or the “lettered” who found and interpreted in Scripture the rule to fit every occasion.  When the New Testament wants to emphasize a person’s conscientiousness and zeal in keeping the law, the best word it can find is “Pharisee” (John 3:1, Philippians 3″:5).

In spite of this earnest concern for purity and obedience, something was out of order.  This was so much so that the Pharisees receive more of Jesus’ hard words than any other group.  Somehow all their effort toward nonconformity and keeping the rules did not help them understand or follow Christ.  It actually got in their way.  So in Matthew’s report of Jesus’ teaching on his kingdom, we find near the beginning of the warning, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

John Howard Yoder, “Radical Christian Discipleship” page 100.

Mean, angry Pharisees.

While they are highly villain’ized’ in some Christian circles I carry a certain element of respect for the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were fervent, to a detriment, in their faithfulness to that which separated them from the world.  They followed rules and regulations taught to them by scribes and forefathers.  They were faithful in the way that they knew how to be faithful.

Sound familiar?

While the Pharisees sought not to conform to the world, they found themselves conforming to a religious legalism that missed the point.  So much so, that when the incarnation of God walked among them, they scoffed, and went about their way whilst criticizing.  Jesus made them uncomfortable.

Do we miss God for the sake of our religious conformity?  Conformity is comfortable.  Even religious conformity.  The Pharisees were comfortable conforming to a religious way of life, while seeking to be non-conformists to the society around them.

In some ways I wish I could carry the same fervent faith the Pharisees displayed.  But with that I am offered the reminder that while seeking to be people of God’s kingdom, we may just be exchanging one ideology for another.  It is the trick of faithfulness and why we need to understand the lesson Jesus was teaching the Pharisees.  Without Christ, rules are nothing.

Yoder calls this a the paradox of Christian freedom.  “When we give up living by rules and begin living in daily fellowship with Christ, we discover that rules are helpful after all.”

How do rules, regulations or guidelines function within your faith community?  In what ways are you similar to the Pharisees?  In what ways are you different?


  1. Jordan · November 27, 2012

    What’s interesting is that while in their religious life the Pharisees were fervent and separatist, in the political realm they seemed to believe that partnering with the Romans (or at least accepting their presence) was the best way to remain faithful to their religious traditions. This is a very different view than either the Essenes, who retreated from the socio-political world, and from the Zealots, who appear to have been less radical in their religious observance, but more radical in their political opposition. Christ came and offered a different route than any of these groups – a route of relational, situational justice – way that honours the bond between God and humanity, and between human beings, above all else.

    The Pharisees attempted to enshrine the law in religious conservatism and societal liberalism, The Zealots in religious liberalism and societal conservatism and the Essenes in both societal and religious separatism. Christ came to enshrine the law in love… and idea so radical, so outside the box, so contrary to any ‘rational’ thought (what do you mean we don’t have to protect this? You think people will behave if we don’t wield a club?), that they killed him.

    I think today the church in general is pretty entrenched in the Pharisaical camp. We tolerate, and even embrace, many aspects of culture – as long as they don’t interfere with our ‘traditional Christian values’ of of pro-life in the womb (although not necessarily later in life), no homosexual civil marriages, and ‘freedom of speech’ within the church, whatever that means. We need to move past the Pharisee mindset and to the mindset of Christ, the mindset that allows for radical, dangerous risk and incredible, life-giving relationships.

    • Chris Lenshyn · November 27, 2012

      Interesting you note the intersection of religious sustainability the Pharisees were seeking and the ability of the Roman occupation to facilitate that hope. We don’t see this in Canada as much, but historically the church/state relationship has been quite prominent in the United States. It offers us the question of church/state relationships. While we villian’ize’ Pharisees it is important, as you say, to note our similarities.

      Thanks for your words.

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