Denial is our first line of defense. Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment. And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.
Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.” Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge. How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?
And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?
I should know. I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite. I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.
Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance. Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it. But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right. Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.
Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.
The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message. It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.
However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29-32)
The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad. They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets. But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link. He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.
The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history. They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story. To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.
What was so wrong with the Pharisees?
“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction. They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.
Jesus once told his audience:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical. Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable? Moody or bipolar? I doubt it.
Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously. And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned. But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.
The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people. The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others. Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?
Or were they content to simply do better than others?
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48)
A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved. There is no room for arrogance when this is understood. The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.
The Pharisees rejected faith. They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves. In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.
Are we better than the Pharisees?
The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.
That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees. They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.
The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time. They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.
However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.
Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?
Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write. Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage. As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.
But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either. We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.