The Sin of the Pharisees

Matthew 23:

23 "Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others.

24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!

25 "Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too!

27 "Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean.

28 In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 "Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.

30 And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'

31 By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

(NET Bible®)

What were the Pharisees doing that was so terrible? The issue is important, since the consequences were dire, and are still being felt. If you read all of Matthew 23, it appears that the Pharisees were being set up to kill Jesus and have his blood on their hands because of these other iniquities.

Many a nominally Christian anti Semite use this and similar passages to justify hatred of the Jews. I think they are making a huge error. Nearly all of Jesus’ followers were also Jews. Jesus was criticizing a particular type of Judaism. Moreover, the Pharisees were in a sense obeying the commandments when they crucified Jesus.

Deuteronomy 13:

1 Suppose a prophet or one who foretells by dreams should appear among you and show you a sign or wonder,

2 and the sign or wonder should come to pass concerning what he said to you, namely, "Let us follow other gods" — gods whom you have not previously known — "and let us serve them."

3 You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer, for the LORD your God will be testing you to see if you love him with all your mind and being.

4 You must follow the LORD your God and revere only him; and you must observe his commandments, obey him, serve him, and remain loyal to him.

5 As for that prophet or dreamer, he must be executed because he encouraged rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, redeeming you from that place of slavery, and because he has tried to entice you from the way the LORD your God has

(NET Bible®)

That the Pharisees witnessed Jesus performing miracles was not sufficient reason to follow him. Deuteronomy foretells of future false prophets being able to perform wonders. Such false prophets were supposed to be killed. If the Pharisees killed Jesus because they thought Jesus was such a false prophet they were following the Great Commandment. (Note the language of verse 3!)

But note:

Matthew 5:

17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.

18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.

(NET Bible®)

Jesus did not lead people away from the Law of Moses. What he did question were Jewish traditions added to the Law of Moses. Such oral traditions have since been written down in the Talmud.

Matthew 23:

4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them.

(NET Bible®)

There are a great many rulings in the Jewish traditions that go beyond what the Law of Moses called for. If you do follow them, you will indeed be within the actual commandments. But doing so is an unnecessary burden. And the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were apparently unable/unwilling to bear the full weight of the burden themselves.

For now, do note that this is the “legalism” that Jesus was criticizing, not following the Law of Moses. Many a Christian has failed to understand this and claimed that the old commandments were done away with, that we should merely follow the Spirit or some such. A selective reading of Paul’s letters can lead one to this conclusion, but there are many passages in Paul’s letters that indicate that the commandments are still in force, and the letters by the other apostles hammer in this point.

Matthew 23:

2 "The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat.

3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

(NET Bible®)

Adding to the Law is a sin [Deuteronomy 4:2], but was this the sin that justified setting up the Pharisees to have Jesus’ blood on their hands? The additions were not arbitrary; they were based on the Law. The Pharisees were mandating extra measures to ensure the Law was not broken. Jesus did something similar by equating hatred with murder and sexual lust with adultery. And Jesus even endorsed following the rulings by the same Pharisee law experts he was denouncing [Matthew 23:3].

One difference, however, was that Jesus called for these extra measures as a matter of internal discipline. He gave no mandate to prosecute people for such slipping. If the Pharisees were punishing others for not doing their extra measures, then the Pharisees were guilty of injustice. But was this the sin in question?

Note the word “hypocrite.” Also note the bits about straining on gnats and swallowing camels, and omitting the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. Making a huge show of being ultra strict in Sabbath observance, tithing, etc. does not compensate for neglecting other parts of the Law.

But which parts?

One part explicitly mentioned is taking care of parents in their old age.

Mark 7:

8 Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition."

9 He also said to them, "You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition.

10 For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.'

11 But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, 'Whatever help you would have received from me is corban' (that is, a gift for God),

12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother.

13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this."

(NET Bible®)

Another clue can be found in Matthew 23:

Matthew 23:

14. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

(King James Version)

We need to be careful using this passage, as it is not found in all ancient manuscripts. The Net Bible omits this version, so I had to resort to the King James Version. If this verse is valid, it can be tied to the many Gospel passages referring to neglect of the poor. It is safe to say that the Pharisees were found wanting in their treatment of the poor and downtrodden. Note that this was a requirement under the Law of Moses:

Deuteronomy 15:

7 If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the LORD your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition.

8 Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs.

9 Be careful lest you entertain the wicked thought that the seventh year, the year of cancellation of debts, has almost arrived, and your attitude be wrong toward your impoverished fellow Israelite and you do not lend him anything; he will cry out to the LORD against you and you will be regarded as having sinned.

10 You must by all means lend to him and not be upset by doing it, for because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you attempt.

11 There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.

(NET Bible®)

The well off were required to lend to the poor at zero interest. But the poor were required to pay back or suffer a temporary loss of farm and/or freedom. However, note that there is no enforcement provision for this lending requirement other than divine wrath.

But does failing to loan constitute robbing the poor? Perhaps. But let us also consider Jesus’ “mission statement.”

Luke 4:

17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and the regaining of sight to the blind,

to set free those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

(NET Bible®)

What is this “year of the Lord’s favor?” E-Sword’s commentary cross-references this passage to Leviticus 25:10, which talks about the year of jubilee, when debt slaves are freed and the land is returned to the people according to their inheritance. The proclamation of jubilee is certainly good news to the poor! I cannot say for certainly that this the passage above refers to the jubilee year, but it definitely fits.

It also meshes with the criticisms of the rich. In an agrarian society the surest way to riches was to accumulate land. Once the fortunate have enough land to generate a surplus, they can reinvest in more land. Over generations you end up with a plantation system or feudal system. The jubilee law (and inheritance laws that forbid primogeniture) prevent this. Matthew 19:20 states that the rich man (whom Jesus asked to sell all his possessions) was a young man. This means that he probably inherited his wealth. Were these possessions land?

Were the Pharisees keeping this law? Do modern Jews keep this law? I know not. I did see references to Sabbath years when reading Maccabees recently, so that law had come back with the Jews when they returned from Babylon – at least the parts about letting the land rest.

Lest any Christians feel smug, how many Christians obey the jubilee law?