One of the most fundamental disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees had to do with how they viewed God, and this influenced how they understood Holiness.
For the Pharisees, Holiness was a very strict code. It had everything to do with how they viewed God – Powerful, aloof, set apart and much too Holy and perfect to even glance towards anyone who was a sinner.
Because of this view of God, the Pharisees behaved in much the same way: Too godly to associate with sinners and too focused on keeping Holiness codes to bother with the lives of those dirty, filthy commoners who didn’t observe the Law as perfectly as they did.
Holiness, as the Pharisees understood and practiced it, had everything to do with being good, godly and perfect, and therefore “set apart” from those who were on the outside. By definition, this understanding of Holiness created an “Us vs Them” separation from God and the unclean; and between them and the sinners around them.
But Jesus took a very different approach to this concept. He seems to have prioritized compassion and love over Holiness and perfection. This is why we see Jesus spending so much time with “sinners” who were not acceptable to the Pharisees; the drunkards, the prostitutes, the sick, the outcasts, and the Roman-sympathizing tax collectors from within their own faith community.
Some have noted that Jesus seems to favor compassion while the Pharisees appear to prefer Holiness, but I disagree. I think that what we see is that Jesus and the Pharisees both prioritized Holiness, but the difference was that they just had very different definitions of what Holiness was, and wasn’t.
As I’ve pointed out, the Pharisees understood Holiness as being “above” or “set apart” from the unholiness of those who did not observe the Law. It was a very divisive, exclusive and elite view of Holiness that, by definition, required an “In” or “Out” policy that was very black and white.
The Pharisees justified this behavior and view on what they believed was a very clear picture of God from their Scriptures. God was “high and lifted up” and no man was worthy to look upon God and live because of our sinfulness and wretched condition. Especially as compared to the unimaginable glory and perfection of Almighty God who was surrounded night and day by the Holy angels upon His eternal throne set far above the heavens.
But Jesus took a different approach. Jesus saw God as being full of mercy and compassion. He had plenty of scripture verses to back that up, by the way. But he also pressed this perspective about the absolute love of God for all mankind as his basis for why we should strive to be just like God; showing mercy and love to sinners and saints alike.
This is especially telling when Jesus commands his disciples to “love your enemies” in his Sermon on the Mount, simply because this is what God does! In fact, Jesus tells us that God brings rain on the just and the unjust alike – in total contradiction to something Moses said in Deuteronomy – and makes that his basis for why we should also show love to the righteous and the unrighteous.
And then, guess what Jesus says after this? He says: “Be holy, even as your heavenly Father is holy.” [Matt. 5:48]
This is a direct shot across the bow of the Pharisees who had taught that being holy as God is holy meant setting yourself apart from sinners and not associating with those who were unclean. Jesus turns the entire thing on its head and says:” This is what it means to be Holy – being like God. And what is God like? God is merciful and loving to everyone – even to those who hate Him! Therefore, you should be Holy the way God is Holy, and that means showing love to everyone!”
So, that phrase: “Be Holy even as your Heavenly Father is Holy” is not a statement about being perfect, and it’s not a challenge for us to do the impossible. Instead, it’s a redefinition of what Holiness is all about – loving as God loves – not about dividing ourselves from one another over who is more perfect or godly than someone else.
Jesus redefines Holiness for us, and sets the Pharisees back on their heels.
Whenever we separate ourselves from others because they are sinful, we are deceived as the Pharisees were about what Holiness is all about.
Whenever we create an Us vs Them division between ourselves and others, we are following the Pharisees playbook.
But, if we can learn to see Holiness the way Jesus sees it – as being like God – then we can learn to see that God is love and loving like God does is what makes us Holy.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d rather be more like Jesus than like those Pharisees.
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