When Slamming Pharisees Makes You a Pharisee

Image from YouVersion Bible app for kids

Image from YouVersion Bible app for kids

We love to hammer on the Pharisees. A group of people who were often revered (or simply feared) by others in their day have become punching bags for those of us on team Jesus. Our Saviour held nothing back when confronting the Pharisees on their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and we not only cheer him on but like to join in the party.

Pharisees deserve the criticism they get from the Lord. Jesus doesn’t misjudge or mistreat anyone, and his attack on their pride of self and disdain for others is perfectly justified. Pharisees think they are righteous because they compare themselves to other people. They think they stack up pretty well against the common sinner, and so they believe that God is rather impressed with them. Jesus showed us that is not the case. God is frustrated with their refusal to humble themselves and recognize that he sees not only the actions of the body but also the motives of the heart. God is not pleased with a cleaned up life when our hearts are full of ugly things.

And so those of us who reject man-made religion and self-righteousness (which we ought) are quick to come alongside Jesus and slam the Pharisees. We call people out on their hypocrisy and pride. We reject the traditions of men that override the Word of God. We are full of disdain for those who would think too highly of themselves. And so we run in the exact opposite direction. We throw off unbiblical rules and refuse to act superior to common sinners. We intentionally do the opposite of what Pharisees do. We become, as it were, anti-Pharisees.

Not So Fast!

Here’s the problem. Unlike Jesus, it is common that in our opposition of Pharisees we actually become one. Think about it. Pharisees define themselves by comparing themselves to other people. So do anti-Pharisees. While the Pharisee compares himself favourably to sinners, anti-Pharisee compares himself favourably to Pharisees. A Pharisee looks down on someone unlike him, and so does the anti-Pharisee. In his stance against pride, the anti-Pharisee actually assumes a position of pride. He looks at those trapped in self-righteous religion, those who judge others and think themselves to be better, and recoils in disgust. He thinks to himself, How can they not see their pride? Don’t they know they are a sinner too? It makes me sick. Those stinkin’ Pharisees are just the worst. Thank God I’m not like that!

These remarks sound awfully familiar.

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18:10-13)

The anti-Pharisee is actually a Pharisee at heart. Even though they seem to take a hard stance against religion and self-righteousness, they end up becoming religious and self-righteous. If we are not careful, we will look at the person who says “Thank God I’m not like other people” and then think to ourselves “Thank God I’m not like them”.

What Is the Remedy?

If we can become a Pharisee by opposing them, should be stop doing it? The answer is no, but we need to do it in the right way. Jesus had no problem opposing the mindset of a Pharisee. He had some harsh words about it. But there is one sense in which we cannot exactly follow Jesus’ steps in this matter. Unlike us, Jesus was sinless, and therefore he did not fall into the trap of pride like we can.

So how can we still be against the Pharisee mindset while not becoming one? By comparing ourselves to God and not to others. The Pharisee in Luke 18 commends himself by comparing himself to others (sinners). The anti-Pharisee likewise commends himself by comparing himself to others (Pharisees). However, the true believer commends himself by comparing himself to God, realizing his failures, and crying out for mercy. In this way he is not commending himself at all, but rather admitting he is not commendable. In the parable of Luke 18, only the individual who compares himself not to others but to God and cries out for mercy actually receives it.

It can be tempting to want to slam Pharisees, no holds barred. That appears to be what Jesus did, and so we feel good in jumping in. But we must approach it in a different manner. Yes, it is right to oppose self-righteousness, but not by becoming a different kind of self-righteous yourself. Rather, we oppose self-righteousness by advocating for God-righteousness. We don’t pridefully compare ourselves to others, but become humble in confessing that we ourselves don’t measure up. We don’t get enjoyment out of slamming Pharisees, because in doing so we become one. Rather we oppose Pharisees while having great love for them and realizing we are a lot more like them than we may first imagine.

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