Tuesday, March 23, 2004

What is a Pharisee?

My small group is doing a study on Philip Yancey's book, The Jesus I Never Knew. Yesterday we had a lively discussion on a couple of paragraphs in Chapter 8, "Mission: A Revolution of Grace." The relevant paragraphs are these:
Somehow we have created a community of respectability in the church, I told my class. The down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome. How did Jesus, the only perfect person in history, manage to attract the notoriously imperfect? And what keeps us from doing this today?

Someone in the class suggested that legalism in the church had created a barrier of strict rules that made non-Christians feel uncomfortable. The class discussion abruptly lurched in a new direction, as survivors of Christian colleges and fundamentalist churches began swapping war stories. I told of my own bemusement in the early seventies when the redoubtable Moody Bible Institute, located just four blocks down the street from our church, was banning all beards, mustaches, and hair below the ears of male students--though each day students filed past a large oil painting of Dwight L. Moody, hirsute breaker of all three rules.

Everybody laughed. Everyone except Greg, that is, who fidgeted in his seat and smoldered. I could see his face flush red, then blanch with anger. Finally Greg raised his hand, and rage and indignation spilled out. He was almost stammering. "I feel like walking out of this place," he said, and all of a sudden the room hushed. "You criticize others for being Pharisees. I'll tell you who the real Pharisees are. They're you [he pointed at me] and the rest of you people in this class. You think you're so high and mighty and mature. I became a Christian because of Moody Church. You find a group to look down on, to feel more spiritual than, and you talk about them behind their backs. That's what a Pharisee does. You're all Pharisees."

All eyes in the class turned to me for a reply, but I had none to offer. Greg had caught us red-handed. In a twist of spiritual arrogance, we were now looking down on other people for being Pharisees.

In the first century, the Pharisees were a religious and political movement. They were neither collaborators with the Roman occupiers, nor revolutionaries. They attempted to find a middle ground, to be "in the Empire, not of it," to use an anachronism. Whereas today calling someone a Pharisee is a condemnation, at that time the Pharisees were respected and respectable. They made great efforts to live by the Law, which gave rise to a strict legalism and high moral standards.

Today, they are best remembered for their conflicts with Jesus. Why? What is it about them that made it so hard for them to get along with him? Well, what he often called them are "hypocrites," or "play actors." People who pretended to be something other than what they were. The passage from Philip Yancey's book points towards the problem: spiritual smugness. Anytime we look down on others because of our superior behavior, or doctrine, or worship style, deciding that we are the "better" Christians, we are acting like the Pharisees did. That is not to say that all beliefs or practices are equally good, or that blatant sin doesn't need a corrective, only that we, imperfect that we are, unable to see into the hearts of our fellow man, cannot judge anyone's spirituality but our own, and if we find that anything but wanting, we are in danger of forgetting our need for Christ.

Update: I am painting with a rather broad stroke here. As with any real-world political movement, there was a wide degree of variety among how individual Pharisees believed and acted. Many became Christians in the early years of the church. In Western thought, however, they are best remembered for their conflicts with Jesus, and I believe that conflict stemmed from the source I pointed out. Any movement which stresses individual purity runs into danger when its members believe they have achieved it.

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