Pharisees were the self-righteous hypocrites of ancient times, but do we recognise the modern equivalent?
If the story of Jesus was filmed as a Western, you can bet the Pharisees would be wearing the black hats. The Pharisees were ancient Palestine’s hard-nosed religious crew who sat in judgement on all around them. From the earliest lines of the Gospel of Mark in the Bible, we see their squinting gaze appraising Jesus, finding fault with the actions of the world’s most loving man and finally moving to kill him.
Is it any wonder then that the term ‘Pharisee’ has passed into modern English as a synonym for hypocrite? Someone usually earns it because of their tendency to place outward appearance above sincere belief. In fact, the term has often been applied to Christians themselves, who’ve departed from the teachings of Jesus to embrace twisted forms of puritanism—something we all have a clear picture of, thanks to The Simpsons.
The Reverend Lovejoy and his wife Helen are the poster couple for modern-day Pharisees. Helen in particular is a gossipy woman armed with snide observations who’s prepared to protest Michelangelo’s statue of David because it fails to fit her worldview: “It’s filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body which, practical as they may be, are evil.”
Pharisees come in an altogether different shape today. I am not the first writer to observe that we are living in a post-Christian society. Australians have been reacting against the heritage that undergirds much of its institutions and values for more than a decade. If there is a defining world view now, it is secularism—the pursuit of a utopian society, completely free of religious restrictions of any kind, built on unlimited freedom.
If hippies from the last century were to step out of a time machine today, they’d find remarkably little to protest. The sort of liberal values that used to occupy the fringes of political thought in the 1960s have now moved to the centre of social thinking. In many cases, this hasn’t been a bad thing. It’s given rise to a range of helpful revolutions, from fairer pay for women to better treatment of minorities and migrant groups. Yet, as they’ve grown in power and influence, the champions of liberalism have taken on a puritanical tone more familiar to religion than politics. As John Mark Comer from the podcast This Cultural Moment describes it, “It’s judgemental, it’s angry, it’s self-righteous, it’s puritanical. If you step out of line, if you say the wrong thing, if you believe the wrong thing, you’re just jumped on.”
These officials, opinion writers, principals and parents have become the self-appointed guardians of individual rights. They prune back Christmas decorations to avoid giving offence. They condemn schools that question a student’s right to choose their gender. They decry politicians who profess mainstream faiths, while ensuring Aboriginal smoking ceremonies are mandatory at government events. They can be every bit as hypocritical as Helen Lovejoy in the promotion of their world view, and just as hurtful towards those who refuse to adopt it. In short, they have become the Pharisees of our post-Christian culture.
Take political correctness, for example. Since everyone is free to believe what they will, no-one is allowed to criticise, even challenge another viewpoint—unless it’s one that challenges this status quo. George Carlin, the American satirist, describes political correctness as “fascism masquerading as manners”. “It presents itself as fairness yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules…[but] I’m not sure silencing people, or forcing them to alter their speech, is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.”
And this is the heart of the Pharisees’ problem, then and now. Jesus referred to his Pharisees as “…whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew chapter 23, verses 27–28). The same can be said of today’s Pharisees.
Political correctness is a dress-up game society plays.
Political correctness is a dress-up game society plays when it wants to present a pleasing exterior, while avoiding a heart-deep problem. We value things such as love, compassion, tolerance, but we refuse to acknowledge that unfettered freedom to do whatever we want will produce the exact opposite. In Christian terms, we would like to live in the Kingdom of God, but we don’t want the King with it.
But then Pharisees have always had it in for Jesus. Whether they hail from the religious right or the liberal left, the Pharisee’s strident objection to the teachings of Christianity is based on the belief that he or she is capable of making it to Heaven on their own. The promise today might be a secular paradise of tolerance and harmony but getting there still rests on us all pulling together to make that vision come true. So, what would Jesus say to our modern-day Pharisees? I think he would begin by pointing out that their hopes are built on three errors.
Firstly, Jesus called on the Pharisees to realise that their ‘good’ was just not good enough. They were publicly acknowledged as the experts on living right, but an examination of their private lives turned up all sorts of problems: the love of money, the neglect of parents and pride of their accomplishments. These shortcomings and others led Jesus to solemnly warn his audiences that something more was required: “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” (Matthew chapter 5, verse 20).
Secondly, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ belief that virtue works its way into a person. The Pharisee, then and now, assumes that improving a person’s behaviour will produce an improved person. But Jesus said concentrating on outward actions just produced perfect play-actors: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew chapter 23, verses 25–26).
Finally, Jesus would tell them that they’re not recognising their biggest problem. To those who were fond of judging others against society’s standards, Jesus said: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew chapter 7, verses 3–5).
The problems the Pharisees were spotting weren’t meaningless, any more than the ones our modern-day Pharisees are highlighting. Yet they were being blown out of all proportion compared to a more serious issue. They were out of relationship with God. As then, so now. How can anyone expect to be able to judge human issues rightly if they’re ignoring the One we draw our concept of righteousness from?