(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees? In what way were they hypocritical? Is it possible for us to portray the Pharisees “unfairly” or irresponsibly and in such a way that contributes to antisemitism?
In Mark 7:6-8, Jesus identifies the Pharisees as 1) hypocrites, 2) those about whom Isaiah had prophesied rightly, and 3) those who had abandoned the commandment of God and were holding to human tradition (and it is appropriate to infer here that the human tradition they were holding to is being contrasted to the commandment of God, and is therefore opposed to it). Specifically, Isaiah’s prophecy names the Pharisees as those “who honor [God] with their lips, but [whose] hearts are far from [Him],” and as those whose worship of God is in vain. The Pharisees are specifically named five other times in the gospel of Mark (2:16-24; 3:3; 8:11-15; 10:2; 12:13). They are never presented in a positive light. In every encounter they have with Jesus and his disciples, they accuse Him of unrighteousness while exalting in their own righteousness. The Pharisees were those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (cf. Luke 18:9). They claimed to obey the law, but if they had truly known what it meant to obey it, they “would not have condemned the guiltless” (cf. Matthew 12:7).
Jesus said to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them, and given to a nation bearing its fruits. And there was no doubt in their minds that he was speaking of them (cf. Matthew 21:43-45). Jesus addressed the Pharisees as descendants of those who had murdered the prophets, judged them guilty of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth,” and prophesied that judgment was about to come on their first century generation. Though they looked righteous on the outside, on the inside they were full of “all kinds of filth...hypocrisy and lawlessness” (cf. Matthew 23:1-38). The Pharisees were the “violent who sought to take the kingdom by force” (cf. Matthew 11:12); and Jesus accused them of hiding knowledge from the people: “You don’t enter the kingdom yourselves, and you prevent others from entering” (cf. Luke 11:52).
While the Pharisees are sometimes presented by extra biblical sources as those who were concerned with returning Israel to a pure religion through a stricter observance of the law, this characterization does not line up with the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. I believe in fact that as Jesus often quoted Isaiah to expose the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and self-righteousness, they were those whom Isaiah accused of “trampling on the Sabbath, and pursuing their own interests on God’s holy day;” and who used the law to oppress God’s people (cf. Isaiah 58:1-5).
There are ways, however, in which irresponsible “Christian” portrayals of the Pharisees have contributed to anti-Jewish attitudes. It would never be responsible, or truthful, for example, to portray the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in the first century as attributable to their race. I am always perplexed when professing Christians do this, for it is completely antithetical to a theology of the cross, which understands Christ’s death as the atonement for the sins of “the whole world.” Indeed, those who crucified Christ did so because of “the definite plan and knowledge of God” (cf. Acts 2:23). “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him with pain.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (cf. Isaiah 53:1-12). Therefore, any portrayal of the Pharisees with an anti-Semitic tone would be wholly incompatible with the Gospel. Instead, we should responsibly remind ourselves of Paul’s piercing question, “What then, are we better than they?” (cf. Romans 3:9) whenever we find ourselves pointing an accusing finger at others, including the Pharisees. It is true that the Pharisees (those of them who didn’t become believers) remained condemned for their self-righteousness; but it is also true that that same spirit of self-righteousness is bound up in each of us until we have been broken by the judgment of the Gospel, and have responded with repentance and faith.
 Isaiah 29:13 The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; 14 so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden. 15 Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.