Jesus and the Pharisees # 2

Jesus and the Pharisees # 2 November 25, 2020

From the perspective of Jesus, the Pharisees were somewhat like tutors acting as tyrants. If the kingdom was in their midst, then much of what they were saying and were doing was irrelevant, it was like arguing about phylacteries while a city was pulling down statues of Caesar and manning the walls (Lk 17:20-21). Many Pharisees had forgotten how scripture itself prioritizes righteousness over ritual and love over law (Mt 9:13; 12:7; Lk 11:42). Some had used their position to amass wealth and seek status (Mk 12:38-40; Mt 23:5-12; Lk 16:14-15). Their halakhah was supposed to help with keeping Torah not circumventing it (Mk 7:8-13; Mt 23:16-22), it had become a cumbersome burden (Mt 23:4), and their teaching did match their own example (Mt 7:5/Lk 6:41-42; Mt 23:3). Their yearning for purity and escape from pollution had turned them into, ironically, bad yeast that had spread through all of Israel (Mk 8:15; Lk 12:1). They had succumbed to the temptation of making piety a public performance rather than a true habit of holiness (Mt 6:1-5, 16, 18; 23:5, 28). Their claim to divine favor manifested itself as a claim for social status over others, which was a recipe for hubris, a constant “justifying” of the self and the condemnation of others (Lk 16:14-15; 18:10-14). Such an attitude was manifested in the presumption of favouritism by the elder son in the parable of the lost son (Lk 15:25-32). Against this, Jesus declared that the line between insiders and outsiders had been redrawn, so that while the Pharisees and sinners were indeed on opposite sides, it was kingdom allegiance that made someone an insider, and the Pharisees were on the wrong side of that line! I know many scholars will declare that this material is a post-70 CE Christianized stereotype of the Pharisees, a rhetorical attack without substance, inaccurate as it is anachronistic. Yet rabbi Hillel had purportedly warned of similar things in the decades prior to Jesus: “Do not separate yourself from the community, do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place” (m.Abot. 2.4). For some Pharisees, Jesus’s message was something, in whole or in part, that they knew they needed to hear, while for others, it was an insult to their honor and a threat to their hegemony as the didactic elite (Lk 11:45, 53-54). It is why many were willing to negotiate with the Sadducees, priests, and Herodians to see the pernicious prophet from Galilee dealt with most severely (Mk 3:6).[1]

The difference between Jesus and the Pharisees was not over “What must I do to be saved?” Nor was it about whether Judaism is a “relationship” as opposed to a “religion.” Nor is Jesus attacking the patriarchy and purity of the Pharisees with a view to supplanting it with his own brand of egalitarianism and inclusivist village ethics. The real issues were who speaks for God and what is the program for Israel’s restoration.[2] Jesus competes with the Pharisees for the allegiance of the Galileans and Judeans as to how to love God and how to be faithful to him in light of the kingdom’s coming; a kingdom that comes specifically through his mighty deeds, healings and exorcisms, and even through his own suffering, death, and vindication. Jesus placed himself at the centre of God’s purposes, precisely where the Pharisees thought Torah and the pursuit of priestly-like holiness should be! That was the source of the conflict and why some Pharisees were even willing to cooperate with Herodians and high priests to have Jesus disposed of. He was not only a rival, but he was potentially leading the nation astray as either a false prophet or messianic pretender.

[1] The chief priest and Pharisees were natural rivals, but they could come together to deal with certain crises, as they did at the beginning of the Judean rebellion against Rome according to Josephus (War 2.411).

[2] Sanders 1985, 281.

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