We need to talk about the Pharisees. This is not an easy conversation to have, primarily because at the very moment you start to think about calling out the Pharisees, you have to humble yourself and wonder if perhaps you are becoming one. After all, the Pharisees were really good at thinking they knew how everyone else should behave. That's one of the things Jesus kept calling them out on.
But the Pharisees are also a very misunderstood group. We've oversimplified what they were guilty of, and what Jesus's real problem with them was. We've done this to the point that we've blurred our understanding of this group and made a mess of the way that we use the word. So we're going to start our discussion this week by looking today at some of the foundational things we know about the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were a deeply religious group. They took faith seriously; it was very important to them. They invested a lot of time and energy into studying the Scriptures. They'd have to - in order to come up with more than 600 'laws' that the people of God had to obey. They knew the finest letters of the scrolls, knew where every i was dotted and every t was crossed. If you asked them a question about God's Word, they could answer it. Right then, right there.
And so the first thing we have to say about the Pharisees is that they were not an ignorant group. Their failures and shortcomings were not because they didn't know something. They knew a lot of things. They could run circles around most of us when it comes to Scriptural literacy.
The trouble for the Pharisees comes in two other areas. The first is understanding. They knew what the words said, but they didn't interpret what they meant correctly. They were so focused on the literal translation that they missed the heart of God in the midst of it all. Today, we might say that the Pharisees lacked a measure of common sense. When God says you should not covet your neighbor's donkey, there were Pharisees who could diagram that sentence and come up with a defense of why you should never even seek, then, to buy a donkey from anyone because if you were in the market for a donkey and went to look at one, you would, necessarily, come to covet it before you purchased it. And so, the Pharisees would have a reason why you should never inspect a donkey for strength or health before you purchase it because doing so would lead you to sin. You should always buy your donkeys sight-unseen. And it's best if you don't even ask questions about the donkey, lest you start to imagine in your mind all of its good qualities and want it before it is even yours. Right now, it is your neighbor's donkey, you sinner.
So the Pharisees were not very good at common sense. They didn't believe in an interpretation of the Scriptures that permitted for real life to be lived; they believed that life should conform to the letter of the Scriptures - as though God's highest aim for our living could be outlined in some legal document.
The second area in which the Pharisees struggled was application of what they knew. They believed in the letter, not the heart, of the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law, and He often said things like, "When I tell you not to commit adultery, that means do not even think about another woman in your heart. Do not lust after her." Meanwhile, the Pharisees were over in the other side of the Temple talking about where the line between foreplay and adultery is. Just how far can you go with a woman before you've committed adultery? Can you kiss her? What if she kisses you? The Pharisees were busy drawing lines while Jesus was doodling grace in the dirt. Their application was just...off.
And of course, we have to talk about the different sets of standards they held - ironic, since God repeatedly warns against having more than one set of weights. (You'd think the Pharisees would have caught that somewhere.) But they had different ideas about what they could get away with and what you could, and they lived their lives basically for show and not out of any kind of real faithfulness.
Now, we do have to say that for most of them, their endeavor into the Pharisee life probably began earnestly. They probably wanted to be a faithful people. They were probably looking for the best ways to align their lives with God. They just got off-track and corrupted by the kind of self-affirming power that comes from believing you are always the most right about everything.
The point is - the Pharisees are not a simple group. Their waywardness is so multi-directional that we can't really simplify it and say they only had one thing messed up. They were especially messed up and were getting a number of things wrong. This week, we're going to look at a few of them in more depth so that we can re-complicate this issue we've oversimplified. Which, I think, has perhaps made us Pharisees in our own right...at least when it comes to the Pharisees.