The Problem of the Pharisees

by Hal Hamilton

Most of us hate hypocrisy, especially in other people. Meanwhile, we alternately love and are cynical about those who seem to have it all together.

The Pharisees were a group of religious and political leaders during the time of Jesus Christ, and He had some very strong words for them. Among other things, He called them “whitewashed tombs”: they looked good on the outside but were dead on the inside.

From a distance of 2,000 years and in a culture that struggles to find leaders with integrity, it is easy to affirm Christ’s rebukes of the religious leaders of his day.

However, I sometimes wonder what we might have thought about the Pharisees if we had lived with them in the same time and culture. After all, they knew their Bible. They were faithful in church. They were experts in following the religious laws and rituals. And they had both political and social power. Would we have been impressed? Would we have wanted to be on their good side? Would we have thought they were close to God?

Jesus makes it clear to his followers that they are to make disciples. But not like the Pharisees. In Luke 11, Jesus calls out the Pharisees and the experts in the religious law because they “load people down with heavy burdens” and “will not lift one finger to help them.” In contrast, in Matthew 11, Jesus invites those who are weary to come to Him because His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light.” How are we to understand this contrast? I suggest that the Pharisees’ problem was that they had created this image, this list, this job description of what being a God-follower looked like and then used it to crush people who didn’t measure up.

In Matthew 22, Jesus identifies the two greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He goes on to say, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This is Good News! It means that being a mature God-follower is measured not by our performance or outward actions, but by our hearts. It means that anyone can become a mature Christian: a six-year-old boy, an old man with a dark and difficult past, a woman who has been in her church her whole life, a mentally challenged young adult, a person who has been abused or abandoned or crushed—all can love God with everything that is in them and can love their neighbor as themselves. What a relief!

Much of the New Testament is about learning what it means to love in this way. The measurement is internal, not external.

That doesn’t mean that anything goes, but that outward actions are a reflection of what is happening in the heart. As I understand it, maturity as a Christ-follower has three basic heart measurements: trust, obedience, and gratitude. From whatever spot you begin, genuine spiritual growth can be measured by honestly answering three series of questions:

  1. Am I trusting God more completely now than I was a week ago? Am I grasping for control of my future, my profession, my relationships, my hurts, and my hopes, or am I allowing God room to work and trusting Him for the outcome?
  2. Am I obeying God more fully than I was a week ago? Am I obedient in all aspects of my life? Am I becoming less compartmentalized and more whole as I allow Him to direct me to greater love in every part of my life?
  3. Am I growing in gratitude? Am I leaving behind my self-absorption? Am I growing in the freedom and joy of being grateful in all things?

I pray a joy-filled week for you as you step away from the crushing weight of performance-based identity to the freedom of trust, obedience, and gratitude in the very One who gives us the capacity and strength to embrace them.

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