Why are the Pharisees mentioned nearly one hundred times in the four Gospels? What connection have they got with the ‘good news’ that Jesus taught?
Luke tells us that “as Jesus was teaching, the power of the Lord was present” (Luke 5:17). Pharisees were there, sitting and listening to him. But to them, Jesus was only “this fellow,” a mere carpenter, and a blasphemer, too. To them the “power” was an evil one, from the demonic prince Baalzebub, not from the Lord at all.
They thought they were “it”
Who were these Pharisees? They were very sincere religious people who studied the Bible and convinced themselves that they alone had the right understanding of it. More than that, they felt that this gave them the right to decide who was acceptable to God and who wasn’t, who was worthy enough to become a Bible believer and who was not. So it came about that ordinary people were afraid of them, and realized that they were just too holy to be approachable. Many of these Pharisees were so convinced that they alone were true believers that they were blinded and hardened in their own stubborn ignorance.
They rejected many who found grace
The “paralytic on a mat” was in their eyes totally unsuitable to become a believer (5:21). Levi was even worse. As a publican “sitting at his tax booth,” he was a hopeless case to be shunned and hated, not befriended. Yet when “Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house,” the Master and his disciples shared it joyfully and had a great time (5:29).
When “a woman who had lived a sinful life” showed her love for Jesus and displayed a genuine spirit of repentance, why didn’t the Pharisees share the joy of her forgiveness? It was because they thought that only repentance on their rigorous terms could be sincere. If we let in people like her, where will it end? You will have every Tom and Dolly wanting to join. It will only bring our community into disrepute.
It was just the same with “the man with the shrivelled hand” (Luke 6:8). His healing and conversion to the truth made the Pharisees “furious.”
It is God who calls. We are not the judges of who is a ‘suitable’ convert and who is not. That is for God to decide. It is for us to rejoice when a sinner repents and welcome him or her joyfully. Most of the Pharisees forgot that.
Their contempt for people, other than themselves, shocked Jesus. You will break your own rigid rules, he told them, to rescue a sheep from a pit because it is a valuable item on your farm inventory, but make no effort at all to rescue a man or a woman who is deep in trouble – and who is far more valuable to God than any sheep is to you. Why?
Fortunately, a few of the Pharisees did listen to Jesus and made some effort to change their attitude. One of them was Nicodemus (John 3:1). What a shock he must have had to be told that he, a master in Israel, must be reborn and start life all over again on a different basis. But this drastic therapy seems to have worked (John 7:50; 19:39).
The Pharisee’s attitude proved hard to change even in the apostolic church. This idea that we, not God, can decide who is worthy to be saved and be a suitable candidate for eternal life, is flattering to the flesh, that is to say, our own self-conceit. “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses’.” The answer of the holy spirit and the apostolic leaders to these Pharisees was straight to the point: “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:5,10-11).
That is, surely, what we believe, too! Oh let us learn that lesson. Let us not stand in the way of those who seek the truth lest we be found to be fighting against God (Acts 5:39).
The Lord’s Table before us is for repentant sinners, not for Pharisees. It is here that we receive “the grace of our Lord Jesus.” Let us receive that grace with thankfulness to the Giver of that grace, so that we may be saved.