Updated: Jan 6, 2022
by Mark Walz
The Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament, and rightly so. But I think it is important to note that they were highly respected. After all, what was difficult for many, they perfected. They were able to adhere closely to the traditions of their fathers and show others what discipline looked like. This is why the disciples cautioned Jesus that His tough words were embarrassing the Pharisees. “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” they said.
But the Pharisees got it wrong. They were more concerned with the way they looked than following God’s actual commands. So Jesus condemned their manner of life and leadership. But if I were a Pharisee…
I would be the kind of Pharisee that did things because I was concerned with feeling right and free from anxiety – peace with God. Of course, many religious people today also believe they can follow religious practices and be at peace with God.
And truly, If I could manage to follow a few strict traditions and in the process believe I have found some level of peace with God, then I would make it my way of life. What the Pharisees were able to do I admire; they had a discipline that was uncanny and incredible when compared to others.
The problem of course arises when a person realizes these little traditions pale in comparison to the much deeper and more difficult commands of God to follow Him at all costs. In fact, the gospel illuminates the truth that following God’s commands to the letter is impossible, even for the Pharisees, and even for the best of us. The gospel destroys any notion that we can find peace apart from God’s grace. Imagine how a person would feel if they were the most disciplined and respected and anxiety-free person in their community only to be told that they are “white-washed tombs.” Imagine how they would feel if they were told that what they thought was their great strength was actually incredible weakness in the light of God’s holiness. What then?
Many would simply become embarrassed and embittered and walk away. Some would even try to destroy the messenger. But what if they, when confronted with their great weakness, accepted it and turned to Jesus for help? Isn’t that what many did? They realized that their strengths were nothing but weakness in God’s eyes and the things they held onto were actually making matters worse because it gave them a false sense of security, a false sense of peace. The tasks they accomplished did nothing to cure their weakness or their sin or their rebellion. For that, they needed a savior.