The professor of the recorded lecture series—who teaches religion at the university—comes to the topic of the Pharisees. He defines them as people who knew that God gave a Law to Israel and so that’s what they would focus on—following it! He points out that pharisee has a negative connotation today—that of ‘hypocrite’—but that was not true in their day—how can people who ‘obey the Law’ be looked at negatively? he marvels. “It’s as though 200 years from now ‘Episcopalian’ comes to have a tertiary meaning of ‘drunkard’,” he says.
He does not mention how that connotation came about—Jesus called them hypocrites repeatedly. Presumably he does not do this because he is a critical thinker who will make his own assessments and not rely upon the judgement of someone else.
The challenge for those who made it their mission to follow the law—and what a commendable mission it was in their eyes!—was that the Law was frustratingly vague, the professor points out. ‘For example, it said that you must do no work on the seventh day, but what is work? Well, there is work work, like when you go into the field on the seventh day just like you go on every other day—we would all probably agree that is work. But what if on the seventh day you suddenly get hungry and sneak into the field to grab a quick snack of grain—is that work? Or what if you walk through the field and knock some grain off the stalks—is that work (harvesting)?
The professor is doubtless anticipating what happens when Jesus’ disciples do just those things, but he makes no mention of this. No, he carries on as though these are perfectly valid questions that might stump any reasonable person. He is trying to make me mad. In fact, when Jesus deals with just that ‘violation’ of Law, he says in effect: ‘It would be nice if you fellows got the bigger picture:’
“Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples got hungry and started to pluck heads of grain and to eat. At seeing this, the Pharisees said to him: “Look! Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them: “Have you not read what David did when he and the men with him were hungry? How he entered into the house of God and they ate the loaves of presentation, something that it was not lawful for him or those with him to eat, but for the priests only? Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and continue guiltless? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. However, if you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones.”
Of course! This is not a matter of the head—it is a matter of the heart. The Pharisees expanded the ‘no work’ law into infinite bits of minute applications, but parts of the Law dealing with love for God and neighbor—not so much with that. ‘You don’t blow the first away as nothing,’ he said, but to harp on the first and say nothing about the second was just too outrageous. See how he nails those characters in the 23rd chapter of Matthew:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was necessary to do, yet not to disregard the other things.” vs 23
I once studied with a young man named Jay. He was a hoot to study with because if the answer to the question was, ‘scribes and Pharisees,’ he wouldn’t just say ‘scribes and Pharisees’—he’d get up and prance around the apartment, nose in the air, acting out the role! He instantly spotted those guys for what they were.
He loved the follow-up verse, too: “Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!” and he would make motions with his hands to illustrate the size difference.
He liked a few more of Jesus’ pithy pushback sayings at those Pharisees—in fact, the liked all of them—dig out the whole chapter and read them yourself. He liked: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence.”
He liked also: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In the same way, on the outside you appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
He liked them all and instantly got the sense of them, in a way that the professor does not. For him it is a fascinating contrast in how different ones reason.