To Be Called a 'Pharisee'

If you are reading this, it is likely you have been called a ‘Pharisee,’ heard someone called a ‘Pharisee,’ or possibly even called someone else a ‘Pharisee.’ The term seems to be thrown around often, and many times when one is seeking to avoid the real issue at hand and cast doubt on the character of the one who would dare disagree so no one gives them any real credibility. It is a tactic often used when one cannot defend a position, a fallacy of argument used to distract attention off of the one who cannot defend a position and attack the character of the opponent, rather than answering a challenge.

      But if we are going to use the term, we best understand who the Pharisees were, to see if the label is correctly given, or just another case of misusing the label as merely a distraction. So, who were the Pharisees, and for what does Jesus condemn them?

      According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the Pharisees were so called because they emerged from post-exilic Israel as one of the major sects that prided themselves on their piety and strict adherence to the Law. The term Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word that means “to separate,” and this was an appropriate description because they did indeed separate themselves from all others. Easton’s notes: “They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters appertaining to the law of Moses…There was much that was sound in their creed, yet their system of religion was a form and nothing more…They were noted for their self-righteousness and their pride.” So, what was it about them that Jesus condemned?

      Let us first note that Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for their desire to strictly adhere to the Law, or for everything they commanded others to do. In His harshest criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus, in fact, told the audience, “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do (Matt. 23:1-3); from this, we may know that when the Pharisees commanded others from the Law of Moses, that was acceptable to God. Later, when He condemned them for their practice of tithing “mint and anise and cummin” (Matt. 23:23), He also said, “These you ought to have done,” indicating that their strict obedience was not the problem. So, what made the Pharisees worthy of condemnation?

      Valuing Tradition Over Scripture. Once, the Pharisees and some scribes came to Jesus and complained about His disciples not holding to the traditions of the fathers in how they washed their hands (Mark 7:1-5). But Jesus turned the complaint back on to the Pharisees and noted Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in them, how God had said of them, “in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6, 7), with Jesus then noting how they, “laying aside the commandment of God,…hold the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8), and how they would “reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9). That sounds no different than a lot of what is seen in the religious world today among many religious groups who likewise profess their faithfulness to God and Christ but who follow human traditions instead of Scripture. Do we think our worship today, if it is based on tradition instead of Scripture, will be any more acceptable to God than it was then? We are fooling only ourselves if we answer in the affirmative! That is the essence of acting a Pharisee!

      Hypocrites. (Matt. 23:2, 3) In His harshest criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus admonished the audience, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” Since the Random House Dictionary defines a hypocrite as “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs,” it is clear that their actions are the very definition of a hypocrite! Is it any wonder Jesus called them “hypocrites” seven times in this context, each time describing their hypocritical behavior that exposed them for who they really were?

      Today, when someone says a man is ‘playing a Pharisee,’ it could be that this is the intended meaning, and that would be a proper usage. Are we, too, ‘playing a Pharisee,’ or is our religious service genuine? As a contrast, God is seeking those who will worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, 24); let’s do that, instead.

      Doing Things to be Seen of Men. Immediately following the condemnation of their hypocrisy, Jesus noted how “all their works they do to be seen by men,” listing some of the outward things they did to draw attention to themselves (Matt. 23:5-7). Their actions seem to be similar to the one Jesus called a hypocrite in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-7, 16-18), and it would not be a stretch to say the Pharisees’ reward will be no different; it won’t be eternal life in heaven.

      But, again, there are some outwardly-religious individuals today who have a habit of hypocritically putting on an outward show to be seen by others as ‘religious’ or ‘pious’ when, in reality, they — like the Pharisees — “inside…are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:28). We are no more acceptable to God than were those Pharisees, for God has always looked on the hearts of men to see who we truly are. ‘Playing the Pharisee’ means one who is outwardly religious, but inwardly [and in all reality] no better than the ungodly ones of the world who have nothing to do with God.

      Neglecting the ‘Weightier Matters.’ In the context of His harshest criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus also noted how they tithed “mint and anise and cummin,” but then “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23). Again, it wasn’t their strict adherence to the law [tithing] He condemned, but doing so to the neglect of the things that, to God, were even more important.

      Here is where some today do, indeed, ‘play the Pharisee,’ spending a great deal of time and energy on ensuring they are doctrinally correct and adhering strictly to what God says we should believe and do in our worship, but who, like those Pharisees, think little to nothing about “justice and mercy and faith.” Sometimes, we may get caught up in this same shortcoming or misdirection, making great arguments for the need for Bible authority [which is important], sound doctrine [which is important], and ensuring the church is organized in the way Christ established it [which is important] and doing the work it should be doing, and no more or no less [which is important], but doing little in the way of supporting and encouraging justice, showing mercy, and being grounded and helping others to be grounded in the faith. When we do that, we are truly ‘playing the Pharisee.’ Let us be careful to do all the Lord commanded, which includes the great command of loving one another as He loved us (John 15:12), and being merciful as God has been merciful to us (Luke 6:36).

            I know of no one who wants to be rightly [or even wrongly] accused of ‘playing a Pharisee’; there is no good connotation that is meant by such accusations. Instead, let us so live that others will see what we believe by how we live and how we treat our fellow man, and will only conclude, “He/She must be a Christian!” — Steven Harper