By Anthony Casperson
Those of us who have been around churches for a lengthy period of time probably have a certain image when we hear the word “Pharisee.” One of the core groups of antagonists in the gospels, these supposed teachers of the law are usually described negatively. (I even added the word “supposed” to that last sentence out of reflex.)
However, the origins of this religious/political group would draw us to a different description of them. One that can help explain why they seemed to be so highly regarded by the everyday Jewish person of the late BC/early AD.
The Pharisees came about during the period of the southern kingdom of Judah’s exile under Babylon and then Persia. They desired to make sure the Jewish people remained faithful to their heritage, their God, and the Mosaic Law.
The word “Pharisee” is built from a Hebrew word which means “to make distinct.” By their very own name, the origins of the Pharisees came about to keep a distinction between the Jewish people and their Gentile neighbors in exile. Declaring and maintaining that difference became something important to them.
And this largely came from the motivation for the Exile in the first place. Ezekiel 20 describes this reasoning. One part was that the people of Israel had turned their backs on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They’d sought out other gods, the beings of wood, stone, silver, and gold that the nations around Israel worshipped. The Jewish people’s ancestors had desired to be so much like the nations around them, that God sent them off to live with some in the Exile.
The other part of the reason that Ezekiel 20 talks about is the neglect of the Sabbath. Not only the God-ordained rest on the seventh day of the week, but also the Sabbath years, one every 7 years, where debts were forgiven and the land itself was to be given a rest from planting and harvesting. Jeremiah adds to this understanding of the Sabbath year’s rest when he proclaims the number of the Exile’s years to be 70, one for every Sabbath year missed in the previous 490 years.
So, the early Pharisees sought to live out the lawful relationship with God that he’d called his people to. It was an attempt to undo the Exile by performing the very things that caused it. A repentance of sorts, in hope that God would relent of the punishment and forgive his people.
We can see why rooting out heretical teachings of God, ritual purity washings, and proper Sabbath regulations became the Pharisees’ stereotypical sticking points by the time of Jesus. It’s an extension of where they started.
But, I can hear some of you asking, “Are you saying that the Pharisees are just misunderstood? Were they really good?”
And the answer to that is, “No, absolutely not.”
My point in bringing up the Pharisee’s origin is to showcase how easy it is for originally good intentions to become something far less good as time moves on. And this is especially true when the good is brought to excess.
It’s good for us to follow God’s commands for our lives. But when we build a fence around the line we don’t want to cross, and then make rules about not crossing the fence either, it begins to go in the direction of excess. And every new layer of fence-building followed by rule-making adds to the problem.
That’s where the Pharisees were with regard to the Sabbath during the time of Jesus. About 500ish years after the Pharisees first sought to keep the Sabbath holy for God, the group during the time of Jesus had created laws about how much weight something could be before it was considered work for the Sabbath. And many other numerous examples of other specific rules.
And the same was true for the Pharisees’ understanding of worship for God. All sorts of rules and regulations that led them to miss the coming of the one God promised to bring salvation to the world.
Excess makes good things into harmful things. And cause us to miss the best thing.
So, I think we have to ask ourselves if there’s any good thing in our lives that we’ve taken to the excess. Any godly, helpful, loving perspective that, when brought to the degree of excess, becomes a blinder to the truth of God.
Are we so set in making sure this one side is taken, that we miss the less godly aspects of it? Or that we forget to see the godly parts of the opposite side?
The Pharisees were so obsessed to keep their self-imposed rules of the Sabbath that they missed the point of God’s gift of rest. And many of them seemed to have missed, and flat out rejected, the fulfillment of that rest found in Jesus.
I could list a great deal of examples here, but I fear it would only end up accomplishing two things. One, exposing to everyone else what areas I have my own blinders. And two, polarizing anyone who reads this blog.
My greatest desire is not to point fingers at all of “those people” who do this sort of thing, but to have us only take an inward look for where our excessive use of a good thing forces the godly into the unholy. Where we individually obsess to the point of excess.
In this highly political time in history, let’s not let excess lead our good intentions into blindly missing the work of God.