Too Hard on the Pharisees, Too Easy on Ourselves


James Tissot, Les Pharisiens et les Hérodiens Conspirent contre Jésus, Brooklyn Museum (source).

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

-Luke 15:1-2

The picture of the Pharisees that many of us have inherited from Sunday School is a caricature; it’s oversimplified. The Pharisees were real people, and we will understand the gospel narratives more fully when we understand the Pharisees more fully. N.T. Wright has really gotten me thinking with this passage from Jesus and the Victory of God:

There is no reason to suppose that Pharisees, or anyone else, spied out ordinary people who were “associating” with “sinners” and angrily objected to them doing so. Accusations were leveled, rather, because this welcome to sinners was being offered precisely by someone announcing the kingdom of god, and, moreover offering this welcome as itself a vital part of that kingdom. The question was not about the sinners, or the moral or theological niceties of whether they had repented, and, if so, in what sense. It was about the scandalous implied redefinition of the kingdom itself.

-N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.274

What if the Pharisees, like most decent people, didn’t enjoy excluding “sinners”? What if they weren’t mad at Jesus for associating with them, they were mad at Jesus for associating Himself so fully with God, for saying, essentially, “the kingdom of God is my kingdom and I’m welcoming you back in”?

For one thing, if this is the case, then we can dismiss our (or at least my) tacit notion that most people in the modern world are more morally advanced than the Pharisees. The Pharisees are easy straw men if we believe that they are the epitome of intolerance. However, if their main contention with Jesus was that they could not believe that the way to the Father is through Him, then they are not alone.

More importantly, if these are the Pharisees, then I have some Pharisaical tendencies. It’s easier to believe that good people earn good things than to believe that Jesus Christ earned God’s good favor. It’s difficult to try to keep following a Risen Lord whom I can’t see when I don’t know any other risen people. Yet, this is how the kingdom of God did come.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

-Luke 17:20-21

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