Chapter 9   Pharisees

Whereas Jewish women were generally appreciative of my teaching the Pharisees soon became my enemies. I have already described how they watched me like hawks hovering over an field mouse. They came to every teaching session with my disciples, but their idea was not to learn and be changed by the Holy Spirit. What they were looking for was some fault they could pin on me and discredit my influence among ordinary people.

Naturally, they were jealous. I was undermining their authority. After many years of theological education, they felt they were qualified to teach the Torah, the unchangeable law of God. I was just an upstart hick-town prophet who had no academic qualifications. People who had looked to them for spiritual direction were now hanging on my every word as a rabbi sent from God. Instead of the strict rules which they taught with such authority, I was encouraging my disciples to go with the Spirit and focus on the heart of what love is all about. I didn't realize how totally upsetting and radical that would seem to them.

The Pharisee mind had been set in a straight jacket. At every point they would say "This is what our tradition teaches. Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?" (Matthew 15:2). Mostly they fastened on trivial things like ritual washing before meals (Mark 7:1-5), or kosher food (Mark 7:14-23), or what was work on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-2).

Tradition is how people have interpreted the mind of God in the past. Revelation is how God reveals his plan for the present. So things go badly wrong when people imagine that tradition has to nullify what God is saying to us today. "For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God" (Matthew 15:6). This is all the more pernicious when tradition is used to avoid the most obvious family responsibilities (Mark 7:11-13).

Another problem with tradition is that it is easy to pick out this and that rule and make into a test of piety. The rule might have been useful for people in a particular situation such as moving for forty years through the desert. Trying to lay it on people who live in a modern city becomes very burdensome. Often when I taught I would give the invitation "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will relieve you. Take my yoke (the yoke of a rabbi's teaching) upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Tradition also fossilizes a string of high legalistic standards which no ordinary person has any hope of attaining. Most people give up on religion altogether. But the teachers who say they accept those standards are forced into living a lie (James 3:1). The result was that the Pharisees who opposed me were incredibly blind to their own hypocrisy (Matthew 23:16-19). .

Before becoming one of my disciples Matthew had engaged in ruthless tax collection. A lot changed after his baptism, but he continued the habit of carrying around one of the new codex books of bound papyrus sheets which were much more convenient than a long papyrus scroll. I noticed he kept writing down what I had taught. One day I asked to see what he was writing and he showed me a page headed PHARISEES.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulder of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and to have people call them rabbi. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father - the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a new convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy, and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:4-28).

I remembered saying all those things in particular situations. But stringing them together like that gave an impression which seemed a bit harsh. I also said many good things about my Pharisee friends. For a start they believed in God as a heavenly Father. And they prayed. They also believed in the Messiah coming to put things right, and in the work of the Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets. They had no problem with angelic messengers (Acts 23:9). And they certainly believed in a future resurrection. It was what they added and missed out that gave a wrong impression. They taught that every person would be judged by the standard of their laws, and depending on their performance either get sent to hell or make it to heaven. What a monstrous idea! They missed the fact that God is a totally loving parent, who cares about heart direction, and the Holy Spirit is more than willing to perfect us in love.

The Jerusalem temple priests, who belonged to the Herodian or Sadducee party, had a very different model of what religion was all about. They pointed out that in the five books of Moses there is not a hint of resurrection. This life is all there is (Matthew 22:23). Our one hope is to maintain our temple services, avoid rocking the boat, and try to get the best deal we can with the Roman occupation army. The two parties were therefore at opposite poles of the theological spectrum, and I had to warn my disciples to sail right between the Pharisee rocks on one side and the Sadducee quicksands on the other (Matthew 16:6-12, Acts 23:6-7).

But they both viewed me as an even greater threat, and quite early in my ministry they agreed I had to be eliminated (Mark 3:6). If I was right, their whole religious establishment of Jerusalem would need to be reformed. And in fact as time went on I told them that within their present lifetime God's judgment would fall on the temple and our beautiful city (Matthew 23: 35-36, 24:1-2, 34).

But neither the Pharisees or the Sadducees were all bad. Most people are a strange mix of some wonderful qualities laced with muddled thinking about what the Father, and the Spirit, and I have in mind for them. What went wrong was that they claimed to teach in the name of God, and badly misled and confused ordinary people.

I was impressed by Rabbi Nicodemus. He was a leader of the Pharisee party, and a member of the Sanhedrin, our supreme national council. He was actually rated as the top theological authority of the day (John 3:10 has the definite article). But the problem was that Pharisees thought a teacher's job was to set the rules, and make people feel guilty if they didn't obey them. But that never works. I call it legalism. The Pharisee mentality can only be cured when people who thought they were righteous suddenly realize that God has a better way of transforming them into his own image (Genesis 1:27). The only hope for humanity is to let the Holy Spirit into the very heart of our motivation, and let him transform us from the inside.

Nicodemus, among all the others, was the one who was humble enough to come and listen attentively to what I had to say. He could tell that something was going on among my disciples which he could not explain. And he admitted that I must have come from God, and the miracles which occured were certainly by a superhuman divine power (John 3:1-2).

I could see at once what he lacked. He imparted to his disciples a vast knowledge of every detail of our Scriptures. But their minds were focused on human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:21-24) rather than the creative power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). He could see my disciples could be in-breathed and moved like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other prophets. The Spirit could transform them, guide them, free them, fill them with love, and give them prayers according to the will of God (Romans 8:4, 10, 14, 21, 26-27). Nicodemus knew that no amount of head knowledge could do that.

I therefore told him he needed to be born again into this new life in the Spirit. "Do you expect me to go back into my mother's womb and start my life again? How can I change my whole teaching style with my students. What do you suggest I do?" His questions were urgent, and I gave him a simple answer. "You have seen my disciples being baptized, and beginning their new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that what you want?"

Suddenly he fell to his knees, bowed his head in prayer, and I signaled to Peter to bring the pitcher of water. It was John who came forward and said "Nicodemus, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). And till late that night the great teacher asked questions and drank in the teaching which we gave him. You could see all the bits and pieces from our Scriptures fitting together in an exciting new pattern in his mind.

My disciples gave this great man a big hug as he left that night (Romans 16:6). And next day we heard how his school of disciples were totally astonished by the new wind blowing through his teaching (John 3:2-8). He came whenever he could to learn more, and even used his annual holiday to join my disciples in Galilee. Later, back in Jerusalem he defended us with great courage in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52).

What Nicodemus did when they crucified me is another awesome story (John 19:39-42). Like a good Pharisee, Nicodemus believed in his own resurrection, but didn't know how it could happen. That is an even more awesome story. And the way the Holy Spirit was able to bring Paul (Acts 9:1-18, Philippians 3:4-10) and many other Pharisees (Acts 21:20) together with a great many of the Sadducee priests(Acts 6:7) to love one another in my church is yet another story. We will come to those stories in due course. But first I need to describe how I discovered that the first act of my reign as Messiah among the nations would be to destroy the temple and our beautiful city.

Chapter 10  .....