Click here to read part one of the series.
Jesus and religious insiders
The Pharisees’ motto: We do life right! You don’t!
Color in the lines.
Drive 55 miles per hour.
Obey the rules.
Be an Eagle Scout. President of the Student Council. And while you’re at it, prom queen.
It feels good to be good. But it feels even better to have people recognize how good you are.
The Pharisees began as a renewal movement within Judaism. These were people who took God seriously. They wanted it to do their lives right. They believed that they had the rulebooks that would allow them to do their lives right:
They had rules, and then they had fences around the rules with more rules posted on them. The rule-posted fences were meant to keep people far, far away from ever violating God’s rules. After all, if you broke a rule posted on the fence, that violation (and its consequences) would keep you away from sinning big time by breaking the Laws prescribed by the Almighty Himself in the first five books of the Bible.
The Pharisees rose to prominence in the troubled centuries prior to Jesus’ birth. Though they were relatively few in number, they were the taste-makers and influencers in their society, defining what a holy life looked like. They were initially a lay-led renewal movement, but a handful of them became a part of the Jewish power structure in first century Roman society.
Professor and author Dr. Scot McKnight describes the Pharisees as “a Torah movement (group) deeply devoted to knowing, interpreting, and applying the whole Torah to the life of Israel in order to restore the fortunes of Israel.”
Jesus referenced the righteous rep of the Pharisees early in His ministry, noting that their belief system told an important piece of his story:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matt. 5:17-20
Winning the Moral Life Competition with the Pharisees wasn’t Jesus’ goal for himself or anyone else. In fact, Jesus focused his ministry on interacting with spiritual outsiders, and unbending the pretzel logic that kept people away from the God the Pharisees claimed to represent to the rest of society. Many of these revered teachers of the Law turned out to be very poor students when it came to examining their own motivations.
Jesus’ most critical words were targeted at these “righteous” men who were cruel, cold and loveless. He demonstrated that this arrogant, self-satisfied form of religiosity had the kind of consequences that people had normally associated only with the behavior of extortionist tax collectors and world-weary hookers.
Though Jesus consistently showed and told the Pharisees that they were nothing more than “whited sepulchres” (a Bible way of saying that they were like rotting corpses in designer packaging), his interactions with them were always characterized by his desire for them to lose their dependence on their religious performance, and to humbly turn to God himself.
And a few of them actually did. Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council and a Pharisee, came to see Jesus one night. Many commentators have pointed out that the timing of this man’s visit says a lot about what was motivating him at this point. Nicodemus used the cover of the night to cloak his solo visit to Jesus. John 3 records their famous nocturnal conversation. Nicodemus queries Jesus about what he and his Pharisee posse have seen Jesus doing, and then asks Jesus to explain what he means when he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again.
Though Nicodemus isn’t mentioned again in the Gospels until after Jesus’ death (see John 19:38-42), it’s interesting to note that Nicodemus paid for the 75 pounds of spices that would be used to ready Jesus’ body for proper Jewish burial. He and another man named Joseph of Arimathea took the body and placed it an unused garden tomb.
The two men expected to return after the Sabbath to finish the burial preparations. It says something about Nicodemus’ changing values that he was willing to become ritually unclean by handling a dead body – compounding his sin in the eyes of the Pharisees by doing these acts for someone the Pharisees had long-ago branded as an enemy of the Law.
To be continued…