Let’s say you have a modern Pharisee and tax-collector come into one room. The Pharisee goes down on his knees and says: “I am a sinner, none of my works measure up to God’s glory, help me to use the blessings that You and You alone have given me to bless those around me, for your glory. Forgive me of all my sins through Jesus Christ and help me to live a life in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Meanwhile the tax-collector raises his eyes to heaven and says: “Lord, thank you that you have not made me like that Pharisee over there, without any tattoos, with all that money. Thank-you that you have made me more ‘real’ than him. Thank-you that you have not made me so legalistic and moralistic.” Who would go away justified?
I heard this “parable” while at college, which really made me think. It is in my own words here. I call it a parable for Marxist Evangelicalism. Whenever I hear a debate about God or morality, I always stop and listen with caution when I hear believers or unbelievers bring in Jesus and the Pharisees. We seem to have a misplaced hatred for the Pharisees in modern day evangelicalism, and this hatred of the Pharisees has resulted in a license to sin (I refer to evangelicalism as any church which is serious about the authority of Scripture and preaching the good news of Jesus). Because, if there is no other response to our issues, we can always blame it on those legalistic, self-righteous Pharisees in the other pew, or the other church. I have heard a number of people referred to as Pharisees and hypocrites and they turned out to be very godly people who desired to serve God and His people. There are Pharisees out there and they have to be called out for exactly what Jesus called them out for, not necessarily for what broader evangelicals wants to call them out for.
Back in College, we were required to read ‘the Communist Manifesto’ by Marx and Engels. Marx and Engels perceived a number of real trends in history, but then proceeded to reduce man’s identity to their class struggles. They begin their work with these words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
Now what does Marx have to do with broader evangelicalism? Well, I have seen an obvious trend among many serious Christians to tend in a direction of viewing the Pharisees and the people of Jesus’ time as a kind of class struggle. The analogy struck me in college, and I begin to see more and more how true this is. Through the eyes of ‘Liberation Theology’, a “Christian” off-shoot of Marxism, we read into the message of the New Testament as Jesus liberating the lower classes and challenging the ruling class (the Pharisees). But Jesus came to liberate both from their sins. The message of repentance went to all men.
This charge of Pharisaism has often been leveled at Christianity and morality in general. I know I have found myself in many discussions where the discussion devolved to that point. But Jesus wasn’t attacking morality in general, rather, He was attacking the moralism of the Pharisees. He had His own rebukes for the crowds, and even among those whom He healed there only stand out a few stories where there was real faith and He says “your sins are forgiven” (such as Mark 2). Jesus had his rebukes for the crowds and His rebukes for the Pharisees, which means we have to think through who is who and the fitting rebukes.
Jesus challenged the Pharisees many times. Jesus calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers (Matt. 12:34), because their hearts are evil, even though they try to sound good. Jesus rebukes them because when they pray, they want to be seen by men (Matt. 6:5). He pronounces woe upon them because they shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (23:13). They do this by tying up burdens too heavy for people to bear (Matt. 23:4). Rather than serving the people, they lord it over them (Matt. 23:11).
So when we see Jesus challenges them, He does not challenge them for seeking to live holy lives. Rather, He challenges them for pretending to live holy lives, while lording it over people, and beginning with externals rather than internal things. He challenges them for shutting the kingdom of heaven to people rather than opening it up for them. They were called to be the servants of the people rather than weighing them down with burdens that they couldn’t even carry.
But Jesus also challenged the people to be better than the Pharisees: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20). Jesus wants this righteousness to go right to their hearts. He wants them to clean themselves internally, rather than just washing their hands. He wants their hearts, not just their pious words. He wants them to know how deep His forgiveness goes before considering questions of tattoos and blue hair.
The Pharisees should have been among the masses helping out the wounded, the sexually abused, the broken-hearted, the tax-collectors and sinners, rather than piling on ritualistic and externalistic religion upon them. But the Pharisees couldn’t do this, because they thought that religion was all about externals, rather than being born again (John 3). And so they warranted the rebuke of Christ.
On the other hand, Christ came as the servant of servants. He really lived a holy life, both internally and externally. He served the broken and He served the Pharisee. He came to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives (Luke 4). He came to call the Pharisee to repentance (John 3). He came to call all men and women to repent and believe the gospel: both Pharisee and the people of Israel (Mark 1:15).
And then He sent out His followers to preach the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Acts). Churches were then formed, and leaders were sent to train Christians in righteousness and patterns of Christian living (i.e. Titus and Timothy). Of course, this training was downstream from the preaching of the good news, but it was necessary because faith without works is dead (James 2). Someone might call that Pharisaism, but the Christian simply knows it to be gospel living and training in righteousness (Titus 2:12). And we don’t want anything different, because Jesus has redeemed us from all the power of the Devil, by dying on a cross and rising from the dead and ascending into heaven.