I remember the one-room church at Cheroor village in Kerala State, India, where as a young boy, our family worshipped every Sunday. It was more than two miles away – walking. I recall the wooden benches without back support, and no washroom facilities. If the room was full, particularly on special days, we kids were told to sit on the floor – no exception. Good Friday services were called Agony Service. It truly was. In all, it was a three-hour service, from 2 to 5 pm, with heavy readings of the trial, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus. I didn’t understand much of it, but I cried for Jesus and disliked the Pharisees. Am I the only one?
Has the frequent reading about the Pharisees, their words and deeds against Jesus, particularly during the Lenten seasons, created a general dislike in Christians, without even knowing it? Is it fair to harbour bitter feelings over a group of people? Is the word Pharisee a synonym for heartless bigot? Whatever the background, I chose this article, not to be controversial, but to make one think it through, as it has forced me to.
For the sake of my Hindu friends, the Pharisee is a Jewish devotee of their God, Jehovah; a strict adherent of their religious books. In today’s terminology, he is a fundamentalist. They impose their strong beliefs in matters of dress code, food, fasting and feasting, or times of prayer, etc. Pharisees taught the traditions of their fathers and levitical ritualism. By way of a general comparison, a Pharisee is like a Hindu Brahmin. Their priest is just like a Namboodiri.
Is there anything wrong with that? It is commendable that they work tirelessly to keep formalism, fight against any violation of their traditions, laws and regulations. Their orthodoxy did help preserve the Old Testament for us. Remember Cecil B. Demille’s classic movie, The 10 Commandments, with Charleston Heston acting as Moses?
What is it that is not-so-good about them? I believe the defect of virtues (read my blog on the Defects of Virtues) started to show up as it always does. They, not all, became super-spiritual and lost the need for moderation. Like many other religions, they felt superior finding fault in any that do not comply to their standards. This decline always leads to intolerance. I wonder whether this is the same root cause that produced the caste system in India.
In the fullness of time, Jesus came. Early on, there was a degree of tolerance – even admiration. When Jesus declared his manifesto at the village synagogue in Nazareth, quoting from Isaiah (Luke 4:16- 24), the line was drawn. From then on, there was continuing conflict, from simple knit-picking to full-blown theological confrontation. A suspicious threat from this young Galilean to their centuries-old tradition, and the strong possibility of losing their grip on the religious and institutional system, led the Pharisees to sink low and to conspire with the foreign power (Romans) to betray and crucify Jesus. This was in spite of Jesus’ assurance: “think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am come not to destroy but to fulfil” (Mathew 5:17).
Not all Pharisees, however, were against Jesus. To name a few, Nicodemus, a ruler of their council, who came by night to see Jesus. Then there was the parliamentarian/ theologian/philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, Gamaliel (student of famous teacher Hillel). He was like a one-man University of his time. St. Paul, a former Pharisee himself, respectfully acknowledged that he was privileged to sit and learn at the feet of Gamaliel. I am not sure if Joseph of Arimathea was a Pharisee. The Bible records that many Jews believed in Jesus, including Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews who dwelt there. He prayed for healing for Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul). The early Christians were all Jews – Pharisees included. One should not judge, or paint all Pharisees with the same brush.
How did Jesus deal with them? In many ways, Jesus was as meticulous with the Law as a Pharisee. For example, whenever Jesus healed a leper, he insisted the cleansed leper show himself first to the priest, according to the law. Jesus believed like a Pharisee when he said “for verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mathew 5:18). Of course, he refuted or corrected them with their own scriptures. He displayed his righteous anger when they loaded heavy burdens on simple folks. He cleaned up the temple single-handedly. Yet, in spite of all the harassment he received from their hands, Jesus loved them. I have at home in Newmarket, Ontario, an old painting by Giovanni, of Jesus sitting on Mount Olive by night and pensively looking at Jerusalem. The painting captures the deep concern he felt for his people – Pharisees included – portraying his sorrowful words “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,……how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chicken under her wings, and ye would not” (Mathew 23:37).
At home in India, my mother always bred chicken (hen and 10 or 15 chicks at a time). One of their fierce predators is the eagle. The mother hen always knew when an eagle was circling in the sky. When the danger was imminent, she would gather in a matter of seconds and hide the chicks under her wings. How descriptive is this scene of the Saviour’s care for the Pharisees.
What do we learn from all of this? It is a given that a Believer can only hate sin but not the sinner. Is it possible that the spirit of a Pharisee is dwelling in all of us? It often remains submerged. But when one starts to disagree, argue over a talking point, dogma, or debate over a denominational stand, does it not raise its ugly head? Is it constrained only to the religious arena? Have you watched political debates lately? Have you witnessed the malice and anger, even among friends, family members and Christians? Is there a danger that what we hate in ourselves, we are incensed when we see it in others? Does it not eclipse the basic Christian virtues we all desire?
Let moderation, my blog theme, (Philippians 4:5) always rule supreme. Whether Jew or Gentile, Pharisee or Sadducee, Hindu or Muslim – in our thinking, conversation or discussions – may the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ govern.
God bless, Danny Paul