Pharisees. Just the mention of the word incurs images of self-righteous and sometimes brutal religious leaders. The Pharisees are a picture of what happens when traditional religion gets out of control. As my brother so brilliantly put it in his post Spiritual But Not Religious, not all religion is bad. But pharisaical religion is the most dangerous form of religion.
When you look at the Pharisees it’s hard to find a lot wrong with them. They followed the law and they memorized scripture. They were brilliant men who spent their time in prayer and reading the Word. Far from being religious illiterates, they were considered the religious scholars of their day.
Yet if you want to know how Jesus feels about Pharisees all you have to do is watch his interactions with them. Every single interaction with them was negative, and usually resulted in them trying to capture or kill him. We don’t have the room in this post to go through every interaction, but suffice it to say they were tense and cold. One interaction actually resulted in the Pharisees accusing Jesus of being full of demons! They refused to recognize who Jesus was, even though he proved it over and over again.
But Matthew 23 tells us exactly what Jesus thought of the Pharisees’ “religion.” He goes off on a tirade exposing them for who they really were. You see, the problem with the Pharisees was not just their religion, it was their hypocrisy. While they claimed to love God, they didn’t show the same love for their fellow man. They claimed to know the scriptures, yet conveniently skipped over the Messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. But most of all, they put religious burdens on others that they wouldn’t carry themselves. Jesus refers to them as a brood of vipers, and pronounces several woes upon them. His disdain for the practice of their religion is very evident.
Unfortunately, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees didn’t die with them. There are still religious leaders today who haven’t gotten the message. Some talk about how terrible the Pharisees were, not realizing that they have fallen into the same trap. If you put burdens on others that you don’t practice yourself, then you are in fact a Pharisee. If you care more about what people think about you than what God thinks about you, you are a Pharisee. If you are so quick to judge others but not look at yourself, then you are a Pharisee. If you prefer the letter of the law over the spirit of it, you are a Pharisee. We cannot allow the spirit of the Pharisees to grip us. We must hold fast to the word of God and not back down from it, but never at the expense of grace, mercy, and love.