Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
—Matthew 23:1-12, NIV
Jesus endorses the Pharisees’ teachings, but warns against their practices.
Why Jesus Endorses the Pharisees’ Teachings
If we compare Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees with His discussions with the Sadducees, we find that Jesus has major doctrinal problems with Sadducees, but not with Pharisees. He differs only on the role of rabbinical tradition in interpreting the Law. On the following points, Jesus and the Pharisees find common cause against the Sadducees:
- The existence of angels and demons
- The resurrection and judgment on the last day
- The coming of a Messiah
- The necessity for preserving and keeping the Law
If you read 1 Maccabees in the Apocrypha, you understand the historical origins of the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were modernists who saw much value in Greek philosophy. They were materialists who did not believe in angels or demons; they did not believe in an afterlife, let alone a resurrection or a judgment; they did not look for a Messiah, and they believed that the Law had to be adapted to modern times and the current state of knowledge.
For this reason, we very often find Jesus as a guest in a Pharisee’s dinner party, but we never see him hanging out with Sadducees. (Bear in mind that Pharisees would not socialize with anyone outside their party.) Most of Jesus’ followers, as for example Paul, came from the Pharisees. The New Testament does not record a single Sadducee converting to Jesus’ cause.
That is why Jesus tells the people that the Pharisees are good teachers but bad examples.
Why Jesus Warns Against the Pharisees’ Example
Bear in mind in this discussion, we are using the word “Pharisee” to mean the Pharisees who abused their positions. Some of the Pharisees were good guys. A Pharisee helped give Jesus a decent burial (John 3:1 and 19:39-40). In fact, a Pharisee wrote a good chunk of the New Testament (Acts 23:6, Philippians 3:4-6).
Pharisees burden people down with their teachings, then stand back to watch them squirm
I once knew two brothers, Jim and Ben, who grew up in an area that was heavily Catholic. Like most kids in that area, their childhood was dominated by strict Catholic teachings.
Jim, the older brother, was particularly impressed with the church. He even later made an abortive attempt to become a priest. But while they were children, Jim used to practice his future vocation on his little brother. Jim would mastermind the sort of mischief that little boys are constantly getting into, and involve his little brother Ben. Then after the tawdry deed had been done, he would lecture Ben about how he was going to hell for his misdeeds. I imagine that this was Jim’s way of expiating his guilty conscience, but it always ended with Ben in tears.
Jim and Ben laughed as they told me about it as adults. They eventually grew up and matured. Jim realized the hypocrisy of his ways, and as Ben caught on, the childhood trauma was healed. But I observe that despite Jesus’ warnings, there are still Christian leaders who abuse their little brothers and sisters this way. However, they are adults, and as adults have no excuse.
Okay, so you are spiritually gifted and well-versed in the scriptures. How do you use the special insights that God gave you? Do you delight in getting people to feel bad about their sins, or are you most pleased when you can pull them out? And while you rail in public against the sinful lives of others, how do you live in secret?
The motivation behind a Pharisee’s spiritual life is to be admired and recognized as religious
Now I have to admit that this is my Achilles’ heel. When I was little, my parents placed great value on intellectual development. I wanted my parents to praise me, so I worked very hard in school to get good grades. I always looked forward to report-card time, because I always got good grades and I was proud of my accomplishments. But my parents would only look at my report card, tell me it was nice, and that was that! So I struggled to bring home better and better report cards, always hoping that my parents would some day praise and reward me, but they never did.
Eventually they explained it to me: my sister, who was one grade behind me, did not live up to her potential in school. They didn’t want to praise me because they thought it might discourage her! So I find that, even as an adult, I am a slave to recognition. I don’t get any, mind you, but it is my personal Holy Grail. I know precisely how I got into this predicament, but I can’t seem to extricate myself.
So I take these words of Jesus to heart. I often assign myself to do some spiritual project that serves my Lord but that cannot result in any recognition for me. Because of my craving for recognition, it hurts, but it is good for my soul, because it prevents me from turning into a Pharisee.
Pharisees like being the guests of honor at banquets, and they make sure they have the best seats in the synagogue
Modern-day Pharisees volunteer to do things in church, but they make sure they have leadership roles where they can get all the visibility and credit, but can avoid most of the actual work. The way you can tell a Pharisee from a dedicated leader, is that the dedicated leader pitches in and helps with the work and always shares the glory.
Pharisees love to be called by their academic or ecclesiastical titles in public
The best priest I know has a doctorate degree, yet he dislikes being called ‘Reverend’ or ‘Father‘ or ‘Doctor.‘ He prefers being called just ‘Bill.‘ This man is a noted Hebrew scholar, he is a guest lecturer in German universities, he works on assignment for the Archbishop of Canterbury in matters of ecumenism, he translates the scripture readings in church from the Greek on the fly; yet you have to find these things out indirectly. To you he’s just Bill, the guy who likes to ride a bike to work, who loves his wife and sons, who lifts up every soul that comes in contact with him.
On the other hand, I heard a story about a man who was filling out an application to be a lecturer. He took the unfinished application to the receptionist and complained that the fee was too low. The receptionist replied that it was the fee that everyone received. “But you don’t understand,” the applicant thundered, “I have a doctorate degree!” And the receptionist replied, “So do I.”
If you have a title, revealing it in the proper context is a part of appropriate self-disclosure. For example, if you have a doctorate in geometry and you teach it in a college, it is appropriate and probably even necessary to use your title. However, if you use your doctorate in geometry to best your opponent in a political argument—“Well, I have a doctorate degree, and I say…”—you are abusing your title. It is the abuse of titles that Jesus denounces. Hence my title, “Pharisees love to be called by their academic or ecclesiastical titles in public,” that is, at a time and place where it carries no weight and is nothing more than bragging.
People who are recently graduated or ordained go through a period of time when they are enamored of their title, but if they are not Pharisees, this wears off pretty soon, and they use their titles appropriately. Pharisees love their titles, they use them to abuse people, and they never realize that people who stand on their credentials generally have to.
What we must do to avoid becoming Pharisees
Do not strive for titles and honors
If you are working for money, you expect to be rewarded with money. If you are working for fame, you expect to be rewarded with notoriety. If you lead a charity’s fight against a disease, you find your greatest reward in the news that they found the cure.
If you are truly working as Jesus’ servant in this world, then only when Jesus is glorified and His cause is advanced do you feel satisfaction and reward. The degree to which you still have a hollow place within your soul that wants recognition or money is the degree to which you are working for Mammon and not God.
This is a hard lesson, and I admit I have not learned it myself. Let us press on to hone our discipline and increase the proper fruits of our labors!
Do not strive to be leaders, but servants
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted. The one who serves best is the greatest among us. Is this just pious claptrap, or is it sublimely practical in everyday life? Well, I’m no expert, and I’m certainly a spiritual underachiever, so perhaps my testimony is worthless. Nevertheless, the older I get and the longer I live, the more practical Jesus sounds to me. I haven’t achieved spiritual perfection by a long shot, so perhaps I am not qualified to say this yet, but the more I submit to Jesus’ discipline and the more I take His commandments at face value, the deeper my joy becomes. I have so very far to go, but when I look back, I see that I have come a very long way.
There is joy in the service of the Lord. His yoke is easy and His burden is light, which is all the more reason to gladly don the yoke of His discipline and bear the burden of His commandments.