Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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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?

Probably not.

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.

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Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

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Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise.  Those who are sincere are emotionally invested in their own position.  This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.

The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided.  Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness.  Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.

People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals.  (And it does wreak havoc there.)  However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice.  It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church.  It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries.  It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division.  The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.

A bold claim?

Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:

#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.

Many people blame external factors for the choices they make.  This can be used as an excuse for sin.  It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity.   They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.

Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!'”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. (Matthew 15:1-11)

The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.  

But Jesus was unimpressed.  

First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.

#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.

Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin.  But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)

This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then.  It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today.  Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.

Can you imagine?

A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?!  Outrageous, right?!?

I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern.  I know them all too well.  We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition.  We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts.  It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.

Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts.  Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.

#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.

Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people.  Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination.  But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.  

They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality.  If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective.  It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.

#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.

Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God.  It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God.  Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.

​​This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea.  The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.”  Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”

It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice.  However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.

The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God.  Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most.  We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card.  Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.

#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.

Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group.  They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers.  But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this.  But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change.  It is a false security established on meeting human expectations.  No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.

Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace.  Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.

#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.

People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did.  They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride.  Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]”  (John 4:7-9)

Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman.  He did not condescend.  But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect.  Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation.  The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus. 

Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?

Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…

#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.

Purity cultures are negatively focused.  They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.  

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)

Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.

People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves.  Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.  

Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?

At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy.  They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.  

Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort.  It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards.  It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit.  It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.

In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.

Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance.  They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other.  Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.

It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23)

Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors.  They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love.  For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.

True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest.  Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil.  Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.  

True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.