If my New Testament had sound effects, dark mysterious music would begin to play whenever one of the Pharisees stepped on stage. They are the universally recognized “bad guys” of the story. If the story were set in the old west, they would be sporting unkempt beards, wearing black hats, and hanging out in the saloons. We have been conditioned to “boo” and “hiss” whenever these low lifes appear in the gospel story. And, of course, we are always on the side of Jesus whenever He speaks to these outlaws of religion.
But, if Jesus had been born 2000 years later, in Fort Worth instead of Bethlehem, if He were raised in the Bible Belt instead of in the shadows of the Temple walls, who would have played the role of the Pharisees?
The Pharisees most likely began as a movement within Judaism to preserve the pure worship of God. When the Greeks conquered the world in the 3rd century BC, they spread their culture and religion to the conquered territories. The worship of the false gods began to infect the teachings and practices of the Jewish faith, too. So, a movement arose within Judaism to preserve the pure worship of the Lord. Guess who was leading the reformation? That’s right, the Pharisees. We could call them the original “conservative resurgence.”
They emphasised the oral law and the traditions of religious teachers that had been handed down for generations. They controlled the synagogue and, through their extensive rules, the entire community. They alone had the right to define what “obedience to God” meant. The way to God was to obey the Law, but more importantly, to obey the Law as they interpreted it. We must remember that the Pharisees were the respected religious leaders of the day. They were generally recognized as the experts on spirituality, and they were probably held up as the model of godliness by parents and community leaders.
But Jesus saw something different in them. In Matthew 23, Jesus described them with disturbing clarity.
- They were religious, but they did not practice what they preached (3)
- They exercised their religion to impress other people (5)
- They loved the places of honor and loved to be recognized as great (6)
- They worked hard to convert people to their religious system, but these converts were worse off when they joined them (15)
- They could not be trusted because they hid behind a system of oaths that allowed their “yes” to be “no” (and yet still seem holy) (16-22)
- They observed religious ceremonies, but they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23-24)
- They focused on minor issues to the neglect of things more important (23)
- They kept their outward appearance looking clean, but their hearts were full of greed, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and wickedness (25-28 )
- They rejected the message of the prophets, a message that derided a religion that “went through the motions” but produced no real transformation (29-32)
So, back to the original question: who would play the part of the Pharisees if the gospel story were played out in the 21st century Bible Belt?
The first category I think of is Baptist pastors. I single out Baptist pastors because I am one, and I don’t know enough about other denominations to cast judgment. We sure have our share of religious leaders among Baptist churches who fulfill the role of Pharisees, do we not? When we act one way in public and another way in closed door meetings, we are acting like Pharisees. When we strut around our churches, allowing the “great sermon” comments to stroke our egos, we are acting like the Pharisees. When we convert people to a religious system instead of to redemption in Christ, we are acting like Pharisees. When we are motivated by greed, pride, or jealousy, we are acting like Pharisees. When we go through the motions, pretending to be religious, but our private spiritual lives are void of the Spirit, we are living like Pharisees. Woe to some Baptist preachers.
Sometimes I think the new legalism within churches, specifically Baptist chruches, is the new breed of Pharisees. Some folks in church seem more concerned with “policies and procedures” than they are the move of God. They are the people who meet you in the hall because you offered a spontanueous offering to meet the needs of a local family whose house just burned down because “it didn’t get approved by the appropriate committee.” The traditions of men are still alive and well.
And our way of doing church, the program centered methodology, might also be the new breed of Pharisees. We span the globe chasing converts, but are they better off because they join us? If we just drop them into a system where they sit on a pew and stare at the same wall, where they do not learn how to feed themselves, where religion is reduced to certain rules and regulations, where religion is activity without redemption, obedience without the transforming Holy Spirit, have we just made them “twice the son of hell” (Jesus’ words) that we are?
Before we “boo” and “hiss,” we need to make sure that we are not “booing” and “hissing” at ourselves.