A lot is said about the Pharisees in the Gospels, much of it...less-than-flattering. These were the men who had invested their lives in interpreting the Scriptures and codifying them so that the people would know how to live. They held the highest places in Jewish society, in the Temple and in the synagogues. The Jews knew that the way to righteousness went through them; they were the men who "knew best." Or, at least, claimed to. They basically controlled all religious life for the Jews.
Jesus rails against them a lot, calling them hypocrites and snakes. Hypocrites not really because they held others to a higher standard than they held themselves (because we don't see a lot of evidence that they were generally corrupt), but because they proclaimed authority in God's Word but actually claimed authority for their own. And snakes because, well, like the serpent so many thousands of years ago, they twisted God's Word in order to deceive the people. They were pretenders. They had all these grand ideas, none of which were true.
But let's be honest for a second, too. And let's give them the credit they are due. The Pharisees thought they were doing the right things...at least most of the time. They were doing it with a pure heart, in order to protect the faith from threats. They had the righteousness of the Jewish people on their mind, even if in practice, they made it unattainable.
We see their purity of heart (though they are corrupt) no place better than we see it in John 11, where the disciple reveals some of the inner conversation of the chief priests - Pharisees, in that day - as they talked about this man named Jesus who had come among them. What John lets us in on is this:
When the chief priests plotted to kill Jesus, they thought they were saving the Jews.
In other words, they thought this new Rabbi and His radical teachings were a threat to the established order of righteousness they had been living by for so long. They thought He would lead people astray from the rhythm of life that the Temple had cultivated since its very foundations were laid. We're prone to think that they considered Him merely a threat to their own power, but this little snippet in John reminds us that maybe they weren't just thinking about themselves. Maybe, as they had from their start, they were thinking about their faith - about all the people of God who were called to live in this way.
This "new" way offered by this "new" Rabbi might lead a lot of these beloved children of God astray.
I know it seems like a leap, but it's right there in John. And despite the venom that is often thrown their way, we have to remember that it's very, very rare to find a man who is thoroughly self-absorbed one hundred percent of the time. Even the most selfish man, unless he is a sociopath, thinks occasionally of others. We cannot allow ourselves to believe only the worst of the Pharisees, to think them all sociopaths.
And that's important. Because we're still living in this kind of world. We are still living in a world where there are a lot of men and women just plain getting it wrong. Whatever "it" is. Even in the faith. There are many preachers who are just plain backward in what they are teaching. I confess that there are many, many things I'm sure I'm getting wrong (not intentionally, of course).
The question is often asked - what are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to put up with this? We think it's our job to go around judging everyone, making sure they're getting it right all the time. Whatever "it" is. Whatever "right" is. But, of course, in doing so, we make ourselves into the Pharisees, becoming hypocrites by putting authority into our own hands while claiming it to be only God's.
What we really have to do in order to live in a world where a lot of persons are getting it wrong, ourselves included, is to look at the heart of the other. We have to understand not just what someone is doing, but why he or she is doing it. What's the motivation? What's the driving force?
Sure, you could say the Pharisees killed Jesus out of their jealousy. Or out of their fear. He was a threat to their power and their place in society.
But John tells us that when they plotted to kill Him, they thought they were saving the Jews. They were fighting for something much bigger than themselves. They were fighting for a way of life that they thought essential to righteousness, to well-living.
The same is true of most persons. We're prone to fight for something, for something that's exceptionally meaningful to us. Not just to fight for ourselves. Not just to fight for our power or our place or our authority or whatever. We fight for our values.
How would it change the interactions you have with others, even the mere thoughts that you have about them, if you took the time to figure out what they were fighting for, rather than just assuming the worst? What if you tried to find their values, so you would know what they're trying to do and not just rely on how it's working out for them?
What if that person who seems so wrong about things, who seems to self-centered or self-absorbed, really thinks he's fighting for you? Doesn't that change things?
We simply can't judge the world in categories like "right" and "wrong" because the truth is that we're all getting it wrong just as much as we're getting it right. We're limited by our own perspective, by our own experience, by our own vision, by our flesh. That's why every day, we learn something new about God - because we don't know it all, and we can't.
So we have to judge each other by something else. By the heart. Because it tells us more than whether we're getting there or not; it reveals what we're going for. And that's important, too.