I don’t know about you, but I have always been taught to see the Pharisee’s in the New Testament as “the bad guys.” They are constantly looking for ways to prove Jesus wrong and criticizing his every move. In our culture, from our point of view and understanding, it certainly appears to be an angsty relationship.
However, our lack of understanding of the Jewish culture (specifically in the first century) has given us a very skewed understanding of this group of people.
The background of the Pharisee begins from the Jew’s return out of exile in Babylon. The group of people who returned to Jerusalem were exceedingly devout Jews, completely dedicated to Torah study and righteousness as priests who put God on display to the world – they were called the Hasidim (ha-see-deem). The Hasidim were the common farmers and shepherds of Israel who knew that their ancestors had failed the mission God had given them: to uphold the covenant of Sinai and live holy lives dedicated to the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, so the whole world would know Him and be drawn to Him. Their ancestors, instead, became like the world and failed completely to uphold their side of the covenant.
Therefore, the Hasidim were exceedingly dedicated to remaining faithful to God through His Word in Torah (the Teachings) at all costs. More than a hundred years after they returned from exile, however, Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Israel (332 BC) and Israel experienced horrifying oppression over the next 160 years under Greece, during which they were horrifically tortured because of their dedication to God and Torah. Under this extreme persecution, from the Hasidim arose a wave of Jewish fighters, zealous for God and outraged at the treatment of God’s temple and his people, under the leadership of the family named Maccabee. The movement, named for their leadership, became the Maccabean Revolt, which shocked the Greeks and drove them from the land in 167BC.
They again became a free nation with a Jewish king on the throne, and priests called the Sadducees running the Temple. Not all of the Hasidim agreed that the Torah upheld violence in God’s Name, however, and they split into two main factions: the Zealots and the Pharisees.
The Zealots used the narrative of the holy priest, Phineas, whose zeal for God turned away his anger from Israel (Numbers 25:7-13), as evidence that God blesses violence when purifying His people from evil and hypocrisy. The Pharisees disagreed, and upheld the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19 as the moment God disavowed violence in His Name; they believed oppression was a sign of God’s displeasure with Israel and that only righteousness and repentance would bring shalom back to Israel.
Jesus was more closely associated theologically with the Pharisees than any other sect of Israel.
We misunderstand the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels because we don’t understand their culture. While all the sects of first-century faithful Jews were concerned with keeping Torah, there was rigorous debate on the best way to do that. It is and was commonly accepted that you could not always keep all the laws of Torah at the same time.
For example, on the Sabbath it is commanded one cannot work. However, in order to keep the temple laws, the priests must do work to fulfill the laws of temple sacrifice. Clearly, one of the laws must be broken. Which one?
Another example for the common person on Sabbath, is that life must be upheld at all costs. But what if an animal or person’s life is endangered on Sabbath? Do the laws of preserving life supersede those of Sabbath?
These were only a couple of the many hotly debated portions of what the Jews call the Oral Law. Dr. Brad Young says, “the open forum of the Oral Torah invited vigorous debate and even encouraged diversity of thought and imaginative creativity (Jesus the Jewish Theologian, 105).” Ray Vander Laan says in Israel’s Mission p126, that these scenes were and still are so intense and passionate, it may seem like they despise each other. But once the debate is over, they sit and eat together in shalom as family and friends. And again, once the meal is over, go back to intensely debating the best way to live according to Torah.
These are the types of scenes we see between Jesus and the Pharisees during his ministry in Galilee. The Pharisees in Galilee were the top scholars of the day, and Jesus blew them out of the water with his understanding of the text. Jesus repeatedly told the people to listen to the teachings of the Pharisees, because they were so very learned and their teachings were spot-on. His problem was that their obsession for holiness actually made them miss the point of the mission which God had given them – to put God on display so the whole world would see and know Him.
All first-century Jews believed they went into exile because they were so led astray by the pagans that only extreme punishment from God would repent them to Himself. Therefore, they pursued rigorous legalism and separation from the pagans and sinners to make sure they were never again led astray (c.f. Numbers 19:22; Psalm 1:1-3). While their intentions were good, it led to a different extreme: exclusion from the world and hypocrisy in their hearts, instead of love in their hearts pouring onto the world. This was Jesus’ argument against them. They missed the whole point of their holiness!
Yet, even after their intense debating, the Pharisees invite Jesus into their home for meals and fellowship together.
Something we love to point out is that Jesus ate with sinners, implying complete acceptance and love – identifying himself with them. Yet, how often we forget to notice that he does the very same with the Pharisees. Jesus often ate with the Pharisees as well! The implications of dining with someone never changed. To eat with someone meant you strongly identified with that person, it was a sacrament of deep acceptance. Jesus repeatedly ate with the Pharisees, much like he often ate with the sinners.
Not only is the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees explained when we begin to understand the culture of high-tension, vigorous debate and the foundations of the sect itself, but we also see that Jesus also identified himself with the Pharisees through eating meals with them like he did the sinners. Jesus taught them through the cultural practices of their day how to better live the mission to which God had called them. He knew their heart for God, for seeking holiness, and invited them to the table alongside the sinners. He believed in them as the leaders of his people, and worked tirelessly for three years in Galilee to show them how God wanted them to lead: through purity of actions, with love for all God’s people, seeking out the lost instead of shunning them.
There is a drastic shift in how Jesus treats the Pharisees of Galilee and the Sadducees and elders of Jerusalem. While Jesus debated Oral Law with the Pharisees of the Galil, he came preaching destruction and judgment on the leaders of the temple, who were exceedingly corrupt and perverted the justice of which they had been charged to uphold. Never once do we read of him eating with these corrupt leaders. Never once.
Many of us are like the Pharisees. Often, we long to do what is right, yet fail in our innate humanity and lack of understanding of our infinite God. Just like the Pharisees, however, if we lean in close, we hear the whispers of our Savior who believes in us, who knows our hearts seek to do what is right in his eyes, as he gently guides us in holiness and righteousness and leads the way to the table of fellowship with sinners, with the marginalized and oppressed, with his lost children.
Will we humble ourselves enough to listen for his perfect instruction? Will we hear and act?
May God be near you today, whispering in your ear His love and gentle guidance all the day is long.
Shalom, Beloved. Be blessed.