Western political-cultural (including religious) discourse in recent centuries (though, I’m sure the practice goes back further) centers on making caricatures of the opposition. As I’m sure you know, a caricature is a stylized drawing that exaggerates certain features in order to convey a message about the subject (their stupidity, inflexibility, silliness, etc). Of course, this can be done in the way we verbally describe an opponent or their view. Sometimes we call it ‘building a straw man.’ It works well on TV and talk radio as well as in college lecture halls and pulpits. In the face of short attention spans engaging the general public requires polarization, controversy, and oversimplification. Subtlety and shades of grey rarely translate well when bottom line emphasis require media & presenters to simply tell people what to think rather than help them learn how to think. My greatest challenge in the pulpit is balancing the fact that most people want things boiled down to 1-3 simple things to do or believe when the Bible itself is a collection of documents – each of which are closely tied to its particular cultural setting. Understanding it well requires an appreciation of very foreign, long past cultures, history, and literary genres. Narrative and sophisticated word-play are not part-in-parcel with our culture. The push to translate what’s happening often leaves pastors marginalizing complex individuals and opponents in Scripture – often to the point of allowing our listeners to simply dismiss them. As a result we miss out on the subtle connections we ought to be making with ourselves, our churches, and our culture at large. Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than with the Pharisees (and later ‘Judaizers’) in the New Testament.
Let me begin by saying that scholarship is presently revisiting their assumptions about the Pharisees. So, anything I say here is intentionally painted with a very broad brush as students of this period are still trying to determine what the fine details are. At first blush, it’s easy to simply dismiss the Pharisees with whom Jesus spars as simple ‘nitpickers’ – not to be taken at all seriously. We do this to our own detriment. Consider the following:
- Pharisees still expected God to deliver Israel through Messiah.
- Pharisees believed in a final judgement, an afterlife, and a ‘spiritual’ realm (angels, demons).
- Pharisees taught something that Christians might term as ‘the priesthood of all believers.’
- Pharisees (Hillel) taught the ‘Golden Rule.’
- Pharisees believed in the necessity of giving alms to the poor and assistance to a brother in need.
- Pharisees were concerned with making the faith of Israel the concern of every Jew, not simply the aristocracy and temple class in Jerusalem. They were the dominant force in the religious life of the synagogue.
- Pharisees wrestled with the questions surrounding the practical application of the scriptures to life in the midst of a changing world that wasn’t directly addressed by Moses, the Prophets or the Writings. These ‘discussions’ were loud, pointed, and an expected part of community discourse (not dissimilar to the way Jesus addressed them). They also held to basic ‘rules’ for the proper understanding of scripture (sort of like ‘hermeneutic’ principles).
- In the face of corrupt leadership during the Hasmonean dynasty (intertestamental period with an independent Jewish state that had expanded its borders to roughly the point of Solomon’s kingdom with a Jewish king), the Pharisees refused to remain silent in face of national leadership that had compromised in a number of important areas. Rather than stand by silently, the Pharisees voiced their concerns and thousands of them were slaughtered by the order of their Jewish king.
In many ways the Pharisees looked an awful lot like modern-day evangelical and fundamentalist schools of Christianity – and Reformation era, Orthodox and Catholic churches might well recognize elements within their own traditions, too. These were devoted men of great faith and principle who were greatly concerned with preserving faith amongst their countrymen (wherever in the Hellenistic world they happened to be scattered) while they eagerly awaited God’s Messiah and their nation’s deliverance. They anticipated the Kingdom of Heaven and worked tirelessly toward its establishment as they understood it. If we’re honest, there’s only a very small difference between their understanding of the Kingdom and the one Jesus announces. When Christians summarily dismiss the Pharisees without acknowledging how closely they resemble us, we run the very real danger of perpetuating a church that looks much more like them than the Jesus we claim to follow.
– Pastor Jim Kushner