Today, I gave a talk in church about the last week of Jesus’ life. In the course of my talk prep, I was struck by the multiple warnings and chidings Jesus gave in his final days concerning the Pharisees, that sect of Judaism that focused on strict observance of Mosaic law, as well as the Sadducees, another religious sect with sharply opposed views from the Pharisees, as well as the the scribes, kind of like lawyers who interpreted the law, but did not write it, and the priests too, for good measure, those aristocratic power brokers from Levite families. Some of the Pharisees were priests, or, in other words, some of the priests were Pharisees, but not all, and there were class issues and theological differences that divided these sects. Nonetheless, these disparate religious groups had a common enemy in Jesus, and he knew it.
Anyone who has studied the New Testament knows that Jesus’ judgment of these religious leaders and their suspicions about him started well before his final week. From the very beginning of his ministry, he captured their attention and ire. These ‘generation of vipers’ would listen to him speak, but from a position of judgment and fear. That fear makes some sense – the Pharisees in particular were trying to save their culture and people as Judaism had suffered much when the temple was destroyed – but unfortunately, this extreme observance of the Mosaic law led to problems, and Jesus frequently ran afoul of the strict observance the Pharisees and others demanded.
However, it was interesting for me to be reminded just how central this conflict between Jesus’ teachings and the practices of these religious leaders was to his ministry in the days before his death, as well as to be reminded just how powerful this pull toward Pharisaical behavior can be, even in the life of someone who ostensibly seeks a higher or better way.
In other words: every time I get annoyed with the Pharisees, with their handwringing and whispered riddles, I am reminded that they are me, that they are us, that each one of us has a Pharisee inside, a well-meaning, but fear-driven, reactionary worrywart who judges too frequently, probably from that place of fear, and maybe also because of familiarity and ease of practice, and that each of us probably knows what it means to accept others conditionally, even when we want to be better than that.
At the beginning of his end, Jesus rode into Jerusalem while crowds of people covered the street with their cloaks and waved branches in his honor. Some in the crowd asked, “Who is this?” (Matt 2:10), displaying a great curiosity about the man on the colt, so much so that it was difficult for one short-statured and extremely wealthy publican named Zacchaeus to get a view of Jesus’ passing. Zacchaeus gained the notice of Jesus who noticed the publican perched in a sycamore tree and said to him, “make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house.” Zacchaeus “joyfully” hosted Jesus for a meal, but many in the crowd murmured their disapproval that Jesus would eat a meal with a known sinner. Same old, same old. The fascinating thing is, and the part most likely missed by those who judged Zacchaeus, was that because of this visit from Jesus, Zacchaeus committed to do and be better: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19: 5-8). He may well have been a sinner, but he wasn’t beyond Jesus’ interest or love, and thus, Zacchaeus ended that day a better man than he had started it.
During these last days of Jesus’ teaching and preaching and temple-cleansing, after he arrived in Jerusalem, but before he was arrested and crucified, these same Pharisees questioned him, particularly about the authority by which he acted, in an attempt to “catch him in his words” (Mark 12:13). They spoke carefully, however, since they feared the crowds of people who were interested in this revolutionary teacher from the country. Jesus gave multiple parables during these days – about the vineyard, about the wicked husbandmen who kill the son of the vineyard’s owner, about the wedding feast to which none of the invited guests show up- and “when [the Pharisees] heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them,” which made them want to destroy him (Matt 21:45).
Sound familiar? Well, maybe not the wanting to destroy someone part, but I know that when I am criticized, I don’t always react well. It is a difficult matter to listen openly to constructive criticism, perhaps because such listening might require – gasp! – change. The Pharisees had a chilling effect on other potential converts too, these people who might otherwise have been interested in changing their lives to follow more closely these paradigm-shifting directions of Jesus; we read that certain “chief rulers” actually did believe what they heard from Jesus, but would not convert and follow this strange teacher or his strange processional because although “many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue:they loved the praise of men more than God” (John 12:42-43). And I get that instinct too. Fearing other people’s reactions has more than once gotten in the way of living my conscience. And I’m not proud to admit such a thing, but it’s true.
So one of Jesus’ repeated messages during the final week of his life, in addition to messages about the kingdom to come, about the comforter he would send to his followers, about his impending death,was to beware these Pharisees and other religious leaders who were actually impeding the work. Perhaps he knew that his fledgling movement would be susceptible to such behavior, made up as it was with human beings, creatures who seem to be particularly prone to status-seeking, ego-stroking, and facade-constructing behavior. Still, there was no mistaking the condemnation:
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocties! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for yet neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.Woe unto you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows ‘ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have ommitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matt 23: 13-15, 23-24, 27-28)
So if that were a job evaluation, we’d have to conclude that these religious leaders had seriously failed to meet expectations. And they dragged others down instead of lifting them up. They wanted very much to seem righteous and important, but failed to understand what such traits should actually entail, or failed to put into practice the spirit of the law to which they were so devoted. Why not? I guess because it’s really difficult to walk that higher path. I can empathize with their struggles. The Pharisees clung to behavior that was easy to measure, outward appearances that were easy to identify. They wanted to be able to check the boxes, and it’s darn near impossible to check boxes when everything is out of the box.
After one of the conversations about authority, the scribes and Pharisees tried to riddle Jesus about issues both temporal and spiritual. “And one of the scribes came and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him…thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt lovethy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
“And the scribes said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question” (Mark 12: 28-34).
I guess it got a little awkward there. The scribe’s epiphany and Jesus’ “Bingo! That’s it” comment certainly quieted the questions of the rest of them. But it’s good for us to ask questions, especially about our inner Pharisees. And for those Mormons in the house, yeah, we’ve definitely got ‘em. I don’t know whether other religious denominations are prone to such behavior. I’m guessing yes, though I’m not particularly familiar with their practices or mindsets, but I do know ours fairly well, and while I know that Mormons have great capacity for love and service, combined with a genuine and ennobling wish to help all of God’s children, I also see, at times, both in myself and in others, behavior and attitudes that Jesus warned his followers away from in those final days of his life. Gulp.
The at-times extreme focus on clothing choices as an accurate marker of worth or value, on covering shoulders, err, make that, girl’s shoulders, on the number of earrings or existence of tattoos, or in the comfort we seem to take in clean-cut hairstyles, not that I’m knocking a nice haircut!, or the current strain of modesty mania that smells curdled to me, and seems to be completely at odds with Jesus’ example of looking beyond the outward appearance – well, in such tendencies, I see our inner Pharisees at work. Maybe you see them elsewhere. Hey, we could turn this identification of our IPs into a cultural ‘Where’s Waldo?” activity, maybe?
I certainly have an inner Pharisee. I too have to be careful not to judge other people because they sin differently than me. I need to do less handwringing about other people’s handwringing, for starters. But I hope it isn’t judgmental to whisper that same word I read over and over this week in the synoptic gospels: “Beware.” Jesus spent the end of his life serving and loving, both those who loved him and those who sought his life. He did not exclude anyone from his circle of love because of that someone’s profession or because of someone’s sketchy social associations or because of rumors of sin or style of robe or facial hair. He saw the worth in each woman, man, and child with whom he came in contact. And then he charged those who would follow him to do the same.
A tall order, to be sure, but one that his followers are obliged to try, and to try again, and then again, even when it’s hard. On Easter Sunday, it is not a bad time to remind that inner Pharisee inside us who’s boss, and calibrate again our minds, hearts, and souls with those two great commandments we’ve been given, making sure we attend to the weightier matters of the law and leave the gnats and camels alone.