The root of the name “Pharisee” in Hebrew is p-r-sh, meaning “to separate.” The Pharisees distinguished themselves from other Jews by their “legal scrupulousness”, the precision in which they studied the Torah, and their emphasis on the “extrabiblical ‘tradition of the fathers’” (bibleodyssey.org, Pharisees).
In Matthew chapter 12, the Pharisees see the disciples of Jesus picking grain to eat, and they say to Him, “look, Your disciples do what it not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Jesus provides an explanation to them using instances in the Law, something they know and are very familiar with. The phrase Jesus says that I want to hit on is “but I say to you that something greater than the temple is here” (12:6).
Jesus then goes into the synagogue and there is a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees again ask Him, “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus responds asking them if a sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, would the man who owns it not lift it out? “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!” (12:12) Jesus heals the man’s hand, and “the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him” (12:14).
Later in the chapter, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man in front of a great crowd. The crowd begins to ask, “this man cannot be the Son of David, can He?” (12:23) The Pharisees respond that Jesus casts out demons by the ruler of the demons (12:24).
Lastly, the Pharisees ask Jesus to see a sign. Jesus says no sign will be given but the sign of Jonah the prophet, his three days and three nights in the belly of the whale telling of the three days and three nights the Son of Man will be “in the heart of the earth” (12:40). Here it is. Jesus says, “behold something greater than Jonah is here.” Then again, talking of the wisdom of Solomon, “and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (12:41-42).
There are many messages in this passage, but two are very plain to my heart.
It is easy to condemn the Pharisees. I mean it says in Matthew that Jesus addresses them as a brood of vipers. But why? How did these men who meticulously studied the Law given by Moses (from God) fall so hard? In my mind, I liken these men to theologians, scholars, who I would look up to and regard highly in their dedication to learning and keeping the Law. But they miss it. They miss the “something greater is here.” They miss Jesus. They have eyes to see, but do not see Him. They have ears to hear, but do not hear Him. Knowing the Law is a noble pursuit and following it is good. Jesus says He does not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This is key. The Law points to something greater, namely Jesus. The Law is not it and putting sole emphasis on following it will ultimately leave us empty and susceptible to worse demons. Legalism kills love, which leaves an emptiness, a lack in our hearts (Interior Freedom). Jesus says in Matthew that a demon can be cast out of a house and then return, finding it clean, empty and tidy. The demon then goes and gets seven more evil demons to take residence in the house.
Thus, “legal scrupulousness” and meticulous studying of the Law becomes a misplaced love for the Pharisees. This is the lens through which they see people and judge their actions and behavior. They only see the world in terms of superior/inferior, in/out, better/worse, lawful/unlawful, me/not me, self/other. I believe this is why it is so difficult to reconcile what Jesus is teaching and what the Pharisees understand through their study. Jesus teaches that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, but this is perceived by the Pharisees as an attack on all they know, even on themselves. They discredit His good and the miracles and healing He is performing because it is “better” than what they can do, “better” than themselves, “superior” to what they know.
It is easy to condemn the Pharisees, but the truth is, the same bad blood runs through my veins. The same strain of sin is very much in my heart. I have a superiority complex that says if I am not the one doing the best, being the smartest, valued the highest, then the one who is, is a threat to me. I perceive this as an attack because failure is unendurable according to the lens through which I measure myself and others- better/worse, me/not me. My value and worth comes from what I produce and accomplish, leaving me insecure in my identity. This insecurity stems from an emptiness in my heart, a lack of love that has left room for more demons to wreak havoc on my soul. I have put too much emphasis on other misplaced loves, probably things that are good and gifts from God, but improperly enthroned in my heart. Insecurity leads to the desire to destroy the other, as the Pharisees sought how they could accuse and destroy Jesus, removing the threat to their identity and restoring their status as the moral elites and “good” ones. This insecurity breeds defensiveness because I can’t be seen as the immoral one. Not me, the one who follows the rules, does the right thing, and treats people well. No, I’m good. Acting out of the fear of all these sentiments being undone, of all my misplaced loves being deflated and me being left to stand on nothing, I attack and accuse Jesus.
I can’t help but see the Pharisee in me. I can’t help but notice how insecurity seeps into my thoughts when others achieve higher, know better, do more. Jealousy and envy take the place of excitement and encouragement. I can’t help but think that in stubbornness to saving face, I would have fought the fulfillment Jesus was bringing to the Law. I would have fought tooth and nail to keep my status as the one who knows, pridefully holding onto the thing I had dedicated my whole life to building and maintaining. Jesus, the “Son of David”? No no, He is just the son of a mere carpenter. I miss Him, I see Him but do not see, hear but do not understand. I miss the “something greater.”
Woe is me, Lord, there is indeed Pharisee in me.