We rarely think of the Pharisees as the good guys, in spite of the fact that Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel seemed to believe the message of Jesus. And who knows how many other Pharisees were secret believers.
Yet, we can learn from these guys. Take some of their behaviors and flip them into more valuable learnings. How did their beliefs affect their culture? Are some of their attitudes still at work in our current world? What did the Pharisees focus on?
Study. Years of study in special schools with respected teachers. Boys were chosen for these schools in light of their intelligence, diligence, and sometimes — their finances.
They resisted any form of intellectual laziness as they trained to become the next generation of Pharisees. They learned all the rules and regulations of the Torah and expected perfection from themselves and others.
What can we Learn? We learn by studying how Jesus acted and what he shared. We can also learn from other resources, online and printed materials. We learn as we study our own leaders and those who teach us each week. Life-long learning keeps our brains fresh, ready to accept new ideas and reflect on what we truly believe.
Hopefully, we have also learned that study, training, and education of all kinds needs to be offered to girls as well as boys. Any country or religion that ignores half the population ends up being short-sighted and cruel.
Patriarchy keeps women in bondage, uses and abuses their gender and their giftings. When we refuse to let women use their spiritual gifts — including leadership — we delete the beauty of what Jesus taught us about respecting all people, no matter the gender.
After all, he shared his Gospel truth with a Samaritan woman, then commissioned her as the first evangelist. He appeared first as the resurrected Lord to a woman and gave her the task, “Go tell the boys I’m alive.” And he nestled in the womb of a woman to become a human like us.
Exclusivity. The Pharisees stayed with their people, taught only the Jews, married and lived only with people from their same culture. As such, their traditions and rules had no chance of learning about other cultures or appreciating the varieties of society. This was one reason why Jesus angered them, because he refused to exclude anyone.
Father Richard Rohr writes, “Jesus lived among the rejected. He ministered among the rejected. He died and was crucified as rejected, as somebody who was outside the political power structure. But early Sunday morning, from the grave he led a resurrection movement—a revival of love, a revival of justice, a revival of mercy, a revival of grace.”
What can we Learn? When we exclude others, we underscore the religion of isolation. We stay in our own safe groups and become stale in our outreach. Our religion becomes us versus them.
It is only by inviting others into our sphere that we can impact the entire world and fulfill the Great Commission.
The marginalized of society are all around us, yet how many of them feel comfortable entering a church? Through social media, political platforms, and the very ugliness of our attitudes we have often excluded the people God loves. We judge them by their clothing, their jobs, their cars, their homelessness, their gender, their politics, their station in life. Because they are not ‘like’ us, we ignore them or let the social services do the work of the church.
Again, Father Richard offers his advice, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
Spiritual Superiority. As learned men, the Pharisees knew their stuff. According to their traditions, their interpretations were always right. But Jesus forced them to consider other ways to interpret Torah. However, thinking of their scripture in a new way took away their control and weakened their system. Their anger and fear led them to murder the One who came to save them.
What can we Learn? I believe spiritual superiority is one of the most dangerous tenets of our church systems. We have been taught certain beliefs through the years, so of course — they must be true. We know the Hebrew and the Greek meaning of various words, so of course — we also know the intent of those words. We ignore the cultural context and pick out phrases that describe what we want to believe is true. We find Bible verses that justify our political and personal bondage.
Yet believers with open minds who truly study with question marks in their hearts may find new truths and new beauty in what Jesus meant, what Paul chose to write about, what the scriptural metaphors really stand for.
When we stop asking questions and blindly accept what we are told, we stop growing.
And with our spiritual superiority, we feast from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then we settle into the biggest problem of the universe: pride.
I am grateful to the Pharisees for what they teach us — how NOT to react to new interpretations, how to study for ourselves and seek out those teachers who have open minds and hearts.
Ultimately, we learn and we grow, we impact our world when we focus on only two topics: Jesus and Grace. Anyone who teaches a different Gospel runs the danger of becoming a Pharisaical rascal and tainting the message Jesus came to share with us.
I hope to keep learning and keep growing. To study who Jesus was and what he taught, how he lived in his culture. And to face my culture with the same unconditional love Jesus has shown me.
©2023 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved
For a study on simplified faith, check out Uploading Faith: What It Means to Believe.