Interested in a quick and easy way to reject a person who you don’t see eye to eye with? It’s quite simple… just call them a pharisee. If you think someone is being “legalistic,” than they are just a pharisee. If someone won’t embrace the “new move of God,” than they have a “pharisee spirit.” If someone likes traditions or deep high-church liturgy, they are a pharisee. It’s all the rage these days, you see, to simply call someone a pharisee if you don’t agree with them or they don’t agree with you. And there’s bonus points if you both call each other pharisees, especially if you get the first shot in.
Seriously, I think I’ve heard this throughout most of my life. Any time you wanted to dismiss someone’s opinion, you simply had to call them a pharisee. Never mind the fact that most of the time I think this was probably just a self-righteous way of trying to take a christological higher ground. After all, Jesus was 100% opposed to the pharisees because the pharisees were all so evil, right? So despite the fact that there’s a great deal of pride behind this self-righteous passive aggressive thinking, it’s also a bit misleading in regards to who the pharisees actually were.
You might be a pharisee if…
- You are a Jewish person living in the 1st century (or prior to it). Historians aren’t entirely sure of when the Pharisee party really got it’s start, but there’s likely coming from the Hasidim (think Maccabean revolt).
- You are a Jewish person who was committed to the Law being obeyed as it was interpreted by the Scribes.
- You are a Jewish person who was committed to keeping the ritual laws and tithing.
- You are a Jewish person who believed in the resurrection of the dead (as opposed to the Sadducees).
- You are a very pious Jewish person living in the 1st century who does your best to obey God’s commands.
Do you get my point? I think the term “pharisee” gets thrown around so much that we sometimes overlook the atual group that Jesus interacted so much with. We overlook that not all Pharisees were the enemy either. Remember, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5) and the Pharisees were far more complex than just being a bunch of “judgmental hypocrites.” Summarizing this point well, Stephen Westerholm writes,
“Luke’s Pharisees present a more complex picture. In part this is because they appear in Acts as well, where they are at times comparatively sympathetic to the Christian movement (Acts 5:33–39; 23:9; cf. 15:5). Paul’s own Pharisaic ties are exploited and never explicitly renounced (23:6; 26:5; cf. 22:3). In Luke Jesus eats in the homes of Pharisees (7:36; 11:37; 14:1) and is warned by Pharisees of Herod’s plots (13:31). On the other hand, conflicts remain (5:21, 30–35; 6:1–11; 15:2), as do the familiar charges of hypocrisy (11:38–41; 12:1), distorted perspectives (11:42), ostentation (11:43–44) and self-righteousness (18:9–14). To these, new accusations (16:14) and instances of ill-will (19:39) have been added. It is unlikely that Pharisaism had a contemporary relevance for Luke. The negative depiction which had become established in the tradition is preserved. Indeed, Pharisees serve Luke’s purposes in providing a foil for Jesus’ attitude toward sinners (cf. particularly the parable of the prodigal son, peculiar to Luke [15:11–32]). Still, the negative note is tempered somewhat by Luke’s desire to show continuity between the Christian movement and its Jewish heritage (Lk 24:25–27; Acts 23:6; 25:14–15; 26:6–7, 22–23; 28:20).” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, 614)
So while I would have no problem recommending Larry Osborne’s new book, Accidental Pharisee, I want to remind you that Osborne’s concern is about you being a pharisee. It’s not about you trying to figure out who is a pharisee so you can attach that label to those that disagree with you. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I being a pharisee here?” more than make statements like, “You are such a pharisee!”
Of course there are people who have very, very, very similar characteristics of the pharisees. Some of those people are sitting right next to you every Sunday or going to your small group or even reading this blog (gasp!). I just hope you’ll remember that not everyone who disagrees with you does so because they are a pharisee and that good hermeneutics requires that you do your best from being anachronistic when reading the Gospels and studying about the Pharisees. Not everything that you may think about the Pharisees may be true. And not everyone who disagrees with you is one either.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
Great article thanks Luke.
One of the most important things (Of course among many) Jesus was teaching the religious leaders of His day (it seems) was to get off the false idea that man or Jewish people where made for the Law. The religious leaders seemed legal centered. By Jesus simply saying God’s laws were made FOR you (not you for the Law) he said so much in regards to how they (religious leaders) were supposed to be Liberty centered focusing on the education of discernment for risk and responsibility rather than purely license and abstinence.
I see in my own (recovering pharisee like) heart a desire or addiction for license and abstinence of a touch not taste not observance of the law rather than the liberty/freedom that comes from life under the Law of Christ and in the Spirit.
So in relation to your article I think the “Pharisee” in me likes the comfort of being in organization, correct doctrine, solid principles or rules. Those can be dangerous substitutions or even idols in place of The Spirit.
Great post, Luke. Using labels to silence the opinions of others is a nasty bit of work, but is all too common. (sadly)
I wrote this post after hearing a speaker use the ‘pharisee’ label (and a few others) in a similar manner.