There are a lot of words and phrases that get tossed around blindly in Christian culture. We use them so often that we believe we understand the words content as best we can. We use some of these terms to layout accusations. There is one word in particular that I see crop up more and more these days. It seems every day I see more and more people hurl the accusation of Pharisee on others. We use this accusation with often a very limited understanding on who the Pharisees were.
Just what is a Pharisee? In Jesus time the Pharisees were the top dog religious men in Judaism. They study the law, followed the law, interpreted the law, and added to the law. They told others how best to live their life. Jesus often had run-ins with the Pharisees. He often had some harsh words to share with them. Sadly we often misunderstand why some of Jesus harshest words were reserved for these men, and in so doing, we hurl horrendous, slanderous, and inaccurate accusations on others. It ironically also gives off the horrible misconception that Jesus was “against religion”.
The misconception starts with assuming that the main mistake of the Pharisees was that they added to the law. We then take this a step further in saying a Pharisee is someone who is judgmental towards someone’s sin. In truth this is actually a symptom of the Pharisees main blunder. The true issue is found in a parable.
“9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
There are some really crucial things to point out in this parable. The first is the context of this story. Notice that Jesus is not specifically talking to Pharisees. He is talking to a large crowd, and this parable is directed towards a certain type of personality. Verse nine does not say that Jesus said this parable for the Pharisees to hear. He spoke this parable to those who were confident in their righteousness and looked down on others.
The next thing to notice is the comparison between the Pharisee and the tax collector. There is a huge element in this comparison that we miss completely. We focus on the arrogance of the Pharisee, and his focus on all of the things he does right by the law, but we miss the main heart issue. All of those other things are simply symptoms of the heart issue. The real issue is that this Pharisee has been consumed by pride. Pride that he is doing things better than others. Pride in that he has become more spiritual. The focus is not on the thing he believes make him more spiritual. The focus is purely on the fact that he believes he is more spiritual. There is a difference which we will see momentarily.
Now look at the tax collector. More specifically look at what he does not do. He does not acknowledge the Pharisee. He does not thank God for making him so much more humble unlike the Pharisee. He does what you are supposed to do in prayer; focus completely on God. Here is the real shocker. If the tax collector had gone on to say how much more spiritual he was because he was so humble, and did not rely on his obedience to the law for salvation, he would have been just as guilty of self-righteousness as the Pharisee!
We are seeing this happening so often now, and it is getting worse. We look at those who speak out against sin and proclaim them as a Pharisee because in our mind we believe they are saying they are better than those in sin. People proclaim sin as sin because sin needs to be brought to light. The problem with the Pharisee was not telling people to get right with God. The problem with the Pharisee was that they thought they were more righteous than anyone else around.
The roles have changed, but the sin has remained the same. Too often we look at the “conservatives” and think about how much more spiritual we are compared to them. We do not need to focus on so many rules because we have a “real” relationship with Jesus. We believe we are more spiritual than those we accuse of as Pharisees (And often wrongly accuse), and in the process we become the Pharisee.
The Pharisees root sin was not found in their obsession towards the law, their telling others of the need to follow the law, or even in their attempts to add to the law. Their flaw was found in their pride. This root sin escalated all of their other qualities from some being very beneficial, into sins themselves. The “humble” are at the same risk. There is a new Pharisee in town, and it may just be us.