Posted by: forfreedomalone | 05/06/2018

Are you a Pharisee?

Have you ever wondered who, exactly, the Pharisees were?
No, I can fully appreciate that you have not, not many have.
After all, why would we need to wonder, it is clearly laid out for us in the Gospels? “Hypocrites”, “Whitewashed sepulchers”, “A brood of vipers”, what more do we need?
Today, the term “Pharisee” had become an insult to be hurled at those who point out wrong from right, holy from common, clean from unclean, godly from profane. It carries all the meaning of, “Don’t you dare tell ME what is wrong, when you are as wrong as me in other ways. Don’t judge me, don’t correct me, don’t educate me, leave me alone to live as I see fit.” It has become a byword for a legalist, one who has more value for keeping rules and regulation than they do for love… defined by he who cries, “Pharisee!”.
But who were the Pharisees and is this view of them correct?
The Pharisees were one of three main sects at the time of Jesus. Their name comes from the Hebrew Perisha, meaning “one who separates himself” and they devoted themselves to observing the laws of priestly purity, to avoiding the ‘am ha-arez (the ignorant and ritually careless), to paying tithes, to observing vows and the respect for other’s property. It is believed by some scholars that they developed out of an earlier group, the Hasidim (Hasid = pious) and resurfaced many centuries later by this same name.
They took their ‘separateness” from Lev 11 where God said that he was holy and that they were to be also. To the Jews of Moses era holiness was the ultimate level of cleanliness, to be holy one HAD to be separated from anything unclean. They placed huge important on the Oral Torah, a system of law they believed God had given Moses on Mt Sinai, which helped to explain the written law where it was confusing….as confusion was the result of kil’ayim, (mixing) and TOTALLY forbidden in the Torah, understanding and clarity were vitally important to pure living.
This search for clarity of understanding of the meaning of the law lead them to making up more and more tradition, in an attempt to ultimately hone the law to its finest point and, thereby, ensure there could be no transgression. The problem was, that this intellectual approach to God’s law only made keeping it harder and harder until it was impossible. They had created so many rules that they began cancelling themselves out and creating traps even for the Pharisees. These were, “the traditions of men” of which Jesus spoke. They believed in the coming Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.
The other main sect of their day were the Sadducees. They insisted on the literal application of the law, whereas the Pharisees were more democratic and compassionate in their applications. They believed in common sense application of the law and humanity where possible.
The WORST insult one could offer a Pharisee was to call him a hypocrite. Their intent was sanctity at all costs and hypocrisy was anathema to them. However, by their many traditions, hypocrites is just what they became, as there was no way to keep all of their traditions. At some point or other they would be saying one thing and doing another, it was inevitable.
This is where we, modern Christians, get the idea that The Law was unable to be kept. Moses said it wasn’t hard to keep, but the traditions of men,added over the centuries, made it impossible. The Pharisaic attitude to the law was that it was for training a man in his responsibilities towards God, or as they put it, to accept the Yoke of His Kingship, which included the yoke of his commandments. They made this yoke heavy by their added traditions, but it was never intended to be so, it was always meant to be light.
They taught that the people should, “take upon yourselves the yoke of God’s Kingdom; let fear of God be your judge and arbiter and deal with one another according to the dictates of love”.
Knowing this little about the Pharisees helps to make sense of statements made by Jesus about his “yoke being light”, “the traditions of men” and why he said that the greatest commandment was the Shema (Deut 6). All of these teachings were aimed at the Pharisees.
It is known that many of the references to Pharisees in the Gospels were not references to them at all, but to “high priests” or “Saducees” or “Herodians” and were changed to “Pharisees” during the reign of Hadrian, all of whom were persecutors of Jesus. There is even some academic thought that Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee as his teachings are so closely aligned with theirs. Whether this is true or not, we know that many Pharisees came over to Jesus.
Some of the Pharisees were, there is no doubt, difficult and unpleasant people, for whom the letter of the law was more important than the spirit. But on the whole the Christian church as adopted Hellenistic attitudes to them and believed that Jesus words, to the extreme among them, was to them all.
But, even if we conclude that he was condemning the whole sect; a philosophy to which I do not subscribe; he was not criticising their high standards, their desire to be holy, nor to lead the people to greater holiness, he was not attacking their correctness, but their traditions; the fact that they had added rules and regulations to the law of God and had made it impossible for the people to ever be free of oppression legislation.
When we understand who the Pharisees were we may find that calling a person such is more of a compliment than an insult, depending on the situation. High standards, set apart from the world, a desire for holy living untainted by the world and a desire to obey God’s commands for our lives is not Phariseeism. Neither is teaching right from wrong (even though we, ourselves, fail from time to time)……adding traditions (or in modern church parlance, “doctrines”) to the word of God is.

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