There Must be Fifty Ways to be a Pharisee

by Jack Crabtree


Just the other evening I was watching the local evening news here in Eugene. They had a story about an antiwar rally staged by a group of local high school students. Something about the story struck me as very strange. A month ago, half of these impassioned protestors thought Iraq was a place to store CDs and videotapes. Yet now they were ready to sacrifice their math class to prevent America from bombing it. The level of enlightenment they had achieved in such a short amount of time was nothing but astonishing.

Watching the story in amazement, a thought dawned: “They’re just like the Pharisees.” Now that was a strange thought! I was looking at young women with heavy makeup, tight-fitting jeans, and bare midriffs and thinking they were a lot like the Pharisees. Surely Pharisees would dress more burka-like, wouldn’t they?

At one point during his earthly ministry, Jesus warned his disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” [Luke 12:1]. Being a secularized twenty-first century American, Jesus’ warning seems utterly irrelevant to me today. I am not even tempted to practice Phariseeism. I am not remotely interested in praying `x’ number of times a day, fasting twice a week, giving alms to the poor, visiting the temple regularly, wearing a phylactery, tithing, memorizing Torah, and whatever else the Pharisees did. I am so far removed from practicing anything like they did that there is not the slightest chance that Phariseeism could seduce me. Is there?

As a budding Bible student, I thought the New Testament objected to Phariseeism because of the Pharisees’ legalism—that is, their preoccupation with laws, rules, principles, and the minute, trivial details of religious observance. The Pharisees just needed to lighten up, I thought. They needed to stop being so uptight about every last little detail of moral and religious obligation.

A little later in my life, I came to think that the New Testament objected to Phariseeism because the Pharisees failed to understand that we are justified before God by our faith, not by our works (that is, by what we do). If the Pharisees had just stopped trying to do things for God and had concentrated on having faith instead, they would have been fine. But they didn’t get it. They thought our standing before God was all about how we live and what we do.

Through my years of Bible study, however, I have gradually come to understand the essential problem with Phariseeism: It was not the Pharisees’ attention to the Law and Law-keeping. For the unique people of God, serious obedience to their Law was a good thing, not a bad thing. Nor was the problem that they were seeking to show their love of God through what they did (works), rather than through faith. What a person does is crucial to proving his love of God. Indeed, actions are crucial to demonstrating faith. James tells us “faith without works is dead” [James 2:26]. Those who will stand justified before God one day will be justified in accordance with the deeds they have done “in the body” [2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:5-10]. So a focus on “works” was not the fundamental problem with Phariseeism.

The problem with Phariseeism was that it was based on a completely false self-concept. The Pharisees did not grasp that they were morally unworthy, that they were shameful, blameworthy creatures. And they certainly did not understand that they could do nothing to make themselves morally worthy before God. They were clueless with respect to their own guilt and real shame; blind to the evil ingrained in their very beings; ignorant of their real motives, the real passions that drove their lives and choices. In short, they were desperately self-deceived. They were enemies of God who—out of a perverse sort of blind sincerity—promoted themselves as the friends of God.

The legalism of the Pharisee was not a problem because it took laws and rules too seriously. It was a problem because it did not take the laws and rules seriously enough. The Law said, “Do not murder.” The Pharisee took great pains to avoid killing another human being. But he took no pains at all to avoid hating his enemy and wishing for his demise. He commended himself for never having committed the crime of murder, and he touted his clean record as a letter of recommendation to God, but he turned a blind eye to all the murderous impulses within his innermost being [Matthew 5:21-22]. The Law said, “Do not commit adultery.” The Pharisee took great pains to avoid having sexual relations with a woman who was not his legal wife—and with smug satisfaction declared himself righteous. But he took equally great pains to find some way to become legally married to the woman his adulterous heart desired—even if he had to divorce his current wife to do it [Matthew 5:27-28, 19:3-12; Mark 10:11-12]. The Pharisee, out of a self-serving agenda to convince himself of his own righteousness, focused meticulously on a few select laws while completely ignoring other, more damning laws. As Jesus put it, the Pharisee strained out gnats and swallowed camels [Matthew 23:24]. So the Pharisee did not, in fact, take God’s law seriously; he only worked very hard to create the appearance of taking God’s law seriously. He was actually a rebel against God and His Law, but he was intent on appearing otherwise, and then on believing his own appearance.

The Pharisee’s emphasis on works was not a problem because he fussed too much over what he did. It was a problem because he failed to fuss enough over what he did. He did what he needed to do to create the appearance of righteousness, but he did not do what he needed to do to be committed to righteousness. A commitment to righteousness will and must show itself in what we do (in works). The Pharisee was not wrong to think so. But where he went wrong was in his selection of the works by which he chose to evaluate himself. He looked at his faithful routine of prayer, fasting, tithing, and Sabbath-keeping and concluded that he was a godly man, worthy of divine blessing. He conveniently averted his gaze so as not to notice his routine of cheating and lying that helped him satisfy the love of money that defined him at the deepest level of his commitments [Luke 16:14].

When we see the essence of what made Phariseeism what it was, the Pharisee is no longer so unfamiliar. We see him everywhere, all around us, throughout the whole of history. The Pharisee of the New Testament may have been a distant and unfamiliar manifestation of universal Phariseeism, but universal Phariseeism has always been with us and always will be.

Universal Phariseeism is a particular strategy that human beings bent on self-deception employ. It is their attempt to escape the damning truth of their own moral perversity and moral unworthiness by behaving and acting in such a way that they conform to an artificial, self-chosen “image” of what it means to be a moral and righteous being.

The Pharisees of the New Testament were employing this strategy. They had a picture of what a righteous and godly man should look like—a picture they promoted aggressively to the whole culture of that day. Righteousness, they stipulated, was about meticulous religious and ritualistic piety, sprinkled with carefully selected aspects of morality taken from God’s law. They ordered their lives and behaviors around this picture, working assiduously to present themselves as righteous according to the dictates of that image. But they did not fool Jesus. Rigorously conforming one’s life to a bogus, artificial image of the righteous man does not make one a righteous man. According to Jesus’ assessment, the Pharisees were nothing but coats of bright white paint slapped on the outside of tombs filled with dead men’s bones [Matthew 23:27].

But Jesus acknowledged the power of the image that these New Testament Pharisees sold to their culture. “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” [Luke 12:1]. The Pharisees were just play-acting. (The concept of “hypocrisy” originated from “play-acting.”) They were just acting out a part, a role, a script that they had written for themselves. They were not really righteous men, however. They had only created a powerfully persuasive image of righteousness that they had learned how to project, and this strategy was contagious, like leaven.

Phariseeism has the same power today. When a Pharisee, skilled in his ability to project his image of righteousness, confronts someone, that person is almost irresistibly tempted to employ the same strategy, to act and behave in such a way that he, too, can portray righteousness convincingly. In the final analysis, though, the only one he really needs his performance to convince is himself. If he can deceive himself, nothing else really matters. He can tuck himself in at night believing he is a truly righteous being.

I knew the high school antiwar protestors were not inherently and intrinsically loving, caring, compassionate human beings. They were teenagers—self-absorbed and self-important. But they were saying all the truly caring and righteous things, expressing all the sentiments of superior compassion, greater liberality, and higher enlightenment. Everything they were saying and doing was calculated to prove how morally superior they were to anyone who disagreed with them. They would go to bed that night and tuck themselves in with the thought that they were truly good people, truly good citizens of the global community.

To be a Pharisee is to act out my self-chosen image of righteousness so convincingly that I convince even myself that it is true. But there must be fifty ways to be a Pharisee. There must be at least fifty different images of righteousness floating around. I can be a righteous-anti-American-I-don’t-want-no-war Pharisee. I can be a Buddhistic-won’t-catch-me-steppin’-on-no-bug Pharisee. I can be an I’m-so-good-I-respect-my-dog’s-rights Pharisee. I can be an I’m-so-compassionate-I’m-gonna-make-sure-we-kill-as-many-babies-as-we-can Pharisee. I can be an I-love-God-so-much-I-swoon-when-I-sing-praise-songs Pharisee. I can be an I-pray-a-whole-lot-more-(and-better)-than-you-do Pharisee. I can be an I-must-be-good-because-I-have-a-sophisticated-knowledge-of -the-Bible Pharisee. I can be a simple I-would-never-do-THAT Pharisee.

Like I said, there must be fifty ways to be a Pharisee. And Jesus warned us against all fifty. All of them are contagious; all of them have the unrelenting power to sell us their image of righteousness and encourage us to conform to it. The only antidote is humble, courageous, honest, self-reflection. As anonymous once said, “There ain’t none of us any good.” Not good enough to be worthy of God anyway. Only by coming to recognize this fact about myself can I be free from having to find a way to pretend otherwise—can I finally be free from Phariseeism. There must be fifty ways to be a Pharisee, but there is only one way to be a true child of God.

Copyright April 2003 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree