Getting it Right on Paper
Let’s be fair - the New Testament Pharisees were a necessary group. The Jewish people were no longer self-governed. Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the Jews had suffered a great military defeat that resulted in an exile to Babylon and the destruction of the First Temple. When the Persians defeated Babylon 70 years later, their ruler, King Cyrus, allowed the Jewish people to return and rebuild the Temple. The Jewish people regained culture and worship and focused on two practices that evolved during the exile: the house of prayer and the house of study. The house of prayer was a place for morning, afternoon and evening prayer. The house of study was a place to explore the Torah. The Second Temple evolved into a place for liturgical practice, supervised by the priests. And who oversaw the study of the Torah and became experts in the law? You guessed it, our friends the Pharisees.
But who could blame someone for taking the Holy Writ under serious study and attempting to apply the deep wisdom to modern human life? (Isn’t that equivalent to attending seminary?) Pharisees guided the common Jewish people in the “how to” of living out the promises of God. They held dual roles by functioning as a political party that advocated for the preservation of Jewish thought and culture in a world dominated by Roman practices (the political authority of Jesus’ day). This was in addition to their duties as religious experts. The Pharisees examined every aspect of Jewish life under the fine microscope of the Torah, constantly searching for more ways to please God. Being a Pharisee didn’t necessarily make one a bad person. As a matter-of-fact the Pharisaical way of life sounds like a blueprint for the Christian faithful. So why does Jesus have usually offer harsh words for the Pharisees?
The bottom line was a lack of compassion. The Pharisees truly believed that if all of Israel would adhere to their interpretation of the Torah (live right) then God would respond by sending the Messiah, who would establish God’s Kingdom on earth. Naturally, the Pharisees believed that they had it right. Instead of offering encouragement to those not quite on board, they offered judgment and harsh treatment. This attitude is the root of Jesus’ disgust.
The Pharisees had it right on paper but, according to Jesus, truly getting it right takes heart.
Discussion Questions: Why is it human to become engrossed in “getting it right on paper”? What makes compassion difficult?
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