Have you ever met a Pharisee? I have. Did you know you might be a closet Pharisee without even realizing it? I put these questions to you so that you will consider the rest of this discussion carefully. You see, Pharisees come in a wide variety of clothing. They are sneaky because they look like everybody else (other than those longer tassels😃). But they have a major defect of blindness to their own faults. And Jesus says this is a fatal error.
Matthew 23 comes on the heels of the final debate Jesus had with his constant verbal sparring partners – the group of hard-headed, hard hearted leaders (I’m lumping together and calling Pharisees.) They were always badgering Jesus, “hoping to entangle him in his talk.” Matthew 22:15 They were relentless in pelting him with difficult questions, hoping to discredit him before “men” (the crowds) – before whom they loved to appear superior. Jesus, apparently, had had enough of their nonsense. So their last conflict ends with him trumping them with a question they were unable or unwilling to answer. “How is David’s son also his Lord?” he asks. The correct answer (which they refused to acknowledge) was that David’s greater son had to be the Son of God and the Son of Man (Mary) – just as Jesus told them he was. Untenable in their worldview! At least their mouths were stopped after this. Chapter 22 ends, “Nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask him another question.”
But these leaders and their attitudes remained on Jesus’ mind. In spite of 3 years of rubbing shoulders with him, they had refused to listen to his teaching and to humble themselves before God. He knew they were the real enemy. They constituted his murderers. They were the enemy – because they represented all that is opposed to God. They were the mind of the flesh/human pride in its most sinister form. And so, sometime soon thereafter, when Jesus speaks to the crowds and his disciples, he takes up a great rant against this type of person. He graphically describes seven woes indicting the sin and guilt of these men who refused to repent before the presence of the Son of God himself.
Let’s consider the personality type of these “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites” that Jesus outlines in his powerful condemnation. And we must not just sit back and enjoy the show as the Pharisees “get theirs”, since some of their weaknesses may glimmer in our own mirrors.
Here is my analysis of the stereotypical Pharisee as outlined by the Lord. If reading them makes you a bit uncomfortable, be assured that that is intentional.😃 All that matters is what we do with enlightenment.
- Take highbrow, authoritative religious stances while telling others what to do.
- Do not practice what they preach.
- Impose unnecessary burdens on others but do not carry them in their own lives or help their victims to carry them in theirs.
- Do things deliberately to be noticed by other people.
- Love the place of honor, the praise of men, recognition, and superiority.
- Crave to be teachers in order to exert power over others and propagate their views.
- Are hypocrites.
- Always, always, always justify their own behavior (i.e. they are never wrong). cp. Luke 16:14-15
- Live controlled/controlling lives.
- Seek every opportunity to exalt themselves.
- Will not be saved. And prevent others from being saved.
- Harm the powerless while at the same time maintaining a religious/spiritual front.
- Spend great energy in seeking followers dazzled by their power- hungry ways and turn them into evil clones of themselves.
- Are more impressed with wealth and opulence than with God.
- Love ritual more than meaning.
- Obsess on nothings while neglecting the truly important.
- Are secretly robbers, self-indulgent, unclean and covetous.
- Are empty and dead inside but are too prideful to see it (or perhaps to admit it.)
- Outwardly seem righteous but inwardly are hiding secret sin.
- Are full of self-righteous indignation when considering the sins of others.
- Have blood on their hands – they murder righteous people. (figuratively cp. Matthew 5:21-22 and literally at times cp. Jesus & prophets)
- Join together to create powerful sinful networks.
- Are part of a great generation of wicked people (the seed of the serpent) spanning through time. (cp. Genesis 3:14-15, Jeremiah 7:27-29, Daniel 12:9-10)
Nasty dudes. But wait a minute before you disengage at that simplistic conclusion. Jesus took great pains to warn about these people. This is of huge spiritual import to understand. Pharisee-types are just a First Century manifestation of the worst of fleshly thinking. They still come in a variety of forms in our modern world. We all have inbuilt tendencies to Pharisaism. We also tend to be impressed and deceived into following Pharisees as spiritual fathers/leaders. The warning is loud and clear in this chapter. We must be awake and aware of these attitudes in ourselves first, and then in those around us. Especially those who in whom we vest spiritual influence over us.
I think there are some particularly revealing principles that Jesus outlines to help us identify long tasseled camel gulpers. Their lifestyles are inconsistent with their teaching. They are not servants. They fail to identify with sin in themselves. They do not apologize or take responsibility for wrongdoing. They refuse to humble themselves before someone who is so obviously greater than them. They are attention/praise seekers. They are teachers who will not be taught. Ultimately, they are full of human pride. This makes them unwilling to gather under the protective wings of Jesus. So he must leave them alone and desolate. vv.37-38
The cure for the Pharisee mindset is outlined simply by the Lord. He called them to it in every interaction he had with them. To walk away from Pharisaism one must be humble enough to see Jesus for who he truly is. He said it in those last words of Matthew 22. One must lose all self-justification before this amazing man who died sinless, to save us from our ever-present sin. To recognize him as a gift of loving God – his Father. When we truly understand that indeed that is who he is, we leave the halls of scribes and hypocrites behind in order to follow the only Rabbi. When we see Jesus in this way, we live lives that figuratively shout “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” from our inmost hearts. This antithesis of the Pharisee attitude reflects itself in our actions and words. Inside we can be full of living water – not dead men’s bones.
And I think of one Pharisee who experienced this conversion. He crossed over from the dark side/viper brood to the radiant light of Jesus. That Pharisee of Pharisees – the converted Apostle Paul – lived a life that is worthy of meditation and imitation. Like him, may we ask God and the Lord Jesus to open our spiritual eyes to help rid us of any long tasseled camel gulping influences – both within and without.