(I preached this sermon for Easter Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 20th 2014.)
Anthem: “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” by Frank Loesser
Sermon: “The Plight of the Pharisees”
It doesn’t take long to figure out from those accounts of the life and death of Jesus known as the Four Gospels that there was no love lost when it came to the Pharisees. The gospels mention them more than ninety times in all, and rarely is the purpose to say something good about them.
The gospel named Mark is the oldest of the four, and provides much of the material used by the later gospels of Matthew and Luke. Just as is the case for those names, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the text itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, or four decades after Jesus’ death. Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.
Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity. He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells them to keep quiet about what he did and who he is. Jesus uses many (often rather cryptic) parables, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death. It’s almost as if Mark was written for people who already understood Jesus, so the gospel only needed to serve as a reminder, rather than as a text book that could be read by a beginner. So it’s not surprising that Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.
As Mark tells the stories, the Pharisees try to understand what Jesus is doing, particularly in terms of his disregard of ritual tradition. Perhaps they’re even earnest in their attempts to understand. Still, they clearly don’t approve of his eating in the company of people they consider to be unclean, and they definitely don’t approve of the way that Jesus and his followers ignore the laws regarding the Sabbath.
When Jesus gets angry at the Pharisees or calls them hypocrites, they don’t take it too well, of course, so they decide to test him, asking for proof of his divine authority in an attempt to destroy his credibility. In response, Jesus warns his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees”, using yeast as a symbol of corruption that can spread. As is typically the case with Mark, though, the disciples don’t understand him and they think he’s simply talking about the fact that they didn’t bring enough bread.
The Pharisees test him again, asking him questions about the legality of divorce or whether they should pay taxes to the Romans. That earns them the famous response, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” And the Pharisees were amazed, Mark concludes, because Jesus neatly avoided their efforts to trap him into committing either treason or blasphemy, while forgetting that, according to their own theology, everything belongs to God.
In the final chapters of Mark, of course, Jesus is arrested, but that’s at the behest of the Jerusalem Temple’s priests and scribes, and it’s they who put him on trial for blasphemy before handing him over to the Romans for execution. The Pharisees, who had formed a more pious faction of Jews by separating themselves from what they saw as the corrupt bureaucracy of the Temple, were not part of that, and Mark leaves them merely confused and outwitted by Jesus.
Matthew is not nearly so kind to them.
Matthew’s gospel is clearly based on Mark’s, but with a few differences. Now Matthew was written a decade (or perhaps two) later, and incorporated much of Mark as well as some other material that also shows up in Luke. What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, probably one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups, like the Pharisees, following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
As such, the Matthew goes to great lengths to connect the events of the life and death of Jesus back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various prophets. Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.
It hadn’t, of course. Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, something that Jesus also did, not about making predictions regarding future events. And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity. Still, Matthew was written before Christianity existed as such, and when it came to fulfilling prophecy, the gospel writer went to great lengths to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
For instance, in describing the events of Palm Sunday, Matthew quotes the book of Zechariah in describing how the king of Jerusalem will enter the city by riding on a donkey. Only Zechariah uses a poetic structure called parallelism, repeating the point for emphasis by also referring to the donkey as “a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Evidently Matthew didn’t understand that, because he takes Zechariah’s words literally, and has Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt at the same time, like some sort of circus stunt-rider.
When it comes to the Pharisees, Matthew repeats what Mark related, and adds to it. The Pharisees accuse Jesus, for instance, of being in league with Satan in order to be able to cast out demons, to which Jesus responds with such memorable phrases as “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and “whoever is not with me is against me”.
The main addition to Matthew, though, is a scathing speech in which Jesus attacks the Pharisees at length. It fills the whole of chapter 23, calling them bullies and cheats and liars and even murderers. The phrase “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” is used half a dozen times to preface some accusation of self-indulgence and false righteousness while neglecting the sick and the needy. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus denounces them. “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
Following Mark, Matthew has the Temple’s leaders plot to have Jesus arrested, and tells much the same story through to the placing of Jesus’ body in its tomb. The next day, though, Matthew has the Pharisees go with the priests to petition Roman governor Pilate for permission to seal up the tomb, in order to prevent anyone from stealing the body and then claiming that this proved that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is the last time that Matthew mentions the Pharisees, and it’s one last reminder to Matthew’s Jewish readers that they should join those who claimed Jesus as Messiah rather than other Jewish factions that had got it all so badly wrong.
Luke, on the other hand, claims to be more objective in his presentation of the stories, and that may actually be the case.
Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s. Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.
We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the gospel as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated. As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.
As with the first two gospels, Luke has the Pharisees question Jesus about his apparently deliberate lack of observance of Jewish law. They also try to trick him into revealing himself as a false prophet, but there’s at least one Pharisee named Simon who seems willing to view Jesus as a teacher, even as Jesus criticizes Simon’s hospitality. It’s when another Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner that triggers the “Woe to you Pharisees!” speech. “For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”
According to Luke, though, Jesus only gets part way through the list of woes before some Torah scholars who are present chime in, saying that the things that Jesus is saying against the Pharisees also insult them, at which point Jesus turns the rest of his speech into a condemnation of them instead. So I guess the lesson is, don’t interrupt a Messiah in full-on rant-mode. Luke’s final mention of the Pharisees is on Palm Sunday when, addressing Jesus as “teacher”, they ask him to keep his followers from proclaiming him king.
And that brings us to the fourth gospel, given the name John. With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, those three are known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be looked at in parallel. The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and including instead a lot of unique material. John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.
John was written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them. It is thought to have been written at least sixty years after the death of Jesus, meaning that two or three generations had passed since the events the gospel claims to describe had supposedly happened.
Part of what distinguishes John, however, is how it seems to have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society. That community may have been experiencing particular difficulty with antagonistic Jewish leaders, and as a result John paints a picture of significant hostility between Jesus and other Jews, particularly the Pharisees.
Now remember that the Pharisees were a Jewish faction that sought to separate itself from, say, the Sadducees and the priests who emphasized the role of the Jerusalem Temple. But according to John, it’s the priests and the Pharisees working together who plot to have Jesus arrested. When the Temple police return without arresting him, it’s the Pharisees who take them to task for having failed.
John, more than the other gospel-writers, has the Pharisees take an active role in denying Jesus, rather than merely asking him questions or trying to trick him. The Pharisees even bring in for questioning a man whose blindness Jesus had healed, going so far as to check with the man’s parents that he had actually been blind. In one indication of John’s political agenda, the parents refer the Pharisees back to their son to answer further questions, because they were afraid of what might the Pharisees might do to them if they said that Jesus was the Messiah.
It is when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead that the plot to kill him emerges in full. The Pharisees called a meeting with the priests, and according to John said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many wonders. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.” The high priest then speaks for all of them, saying “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” And from then on they planned to have Jesus put to death, with both the priests and the Pharisees giving orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they could arrest him.
Of course, when the Pharisees see Jesus arriving in Jerusalem for Passover, they realize there’s little they can do with such a large crowd going with him, but they do manage to prevent some other Jewish leaders from going with him. And finally, when Judas betrays Jesus by revealing his location, it’s a veritable mob of not only the Temple police under the supervision of the priests and the Pharisees but also a unit of Roman soldiers who go to arrest him. Once his trial begins, John has Pilate alternate between questioning Jesus and speaking with the Jewish leaders, who are adamant that Jesus be put to death by the Romans, even going so far as to accuse Pilate of treason if he acquits Jesus.
So, to recap: Mark has the Pharisees mostly confused and outwitted by Jesus; Matthew has them trading insults with him, but in the end they’re just trying to keep him buried and forgotten; Luke has some of the Pharisees at least open to what Jesus is preaching, even as they worry about the unwanted attention he’s bringing from the Romans; and John has the Pharisees actively conspiring with the other Jewish factions to manipulate the Romans into killing Jesus in order to save themselves.
There’s clearly a progression in how the gospels treat the Pharisees, based on when they were written and what the gospel-writers wanted to achieve. And it’s not surprising that a lot of anti-semitism has been blamed on the gospel of John.
The Jerusalem Temple was, of course, destroyed about forty years after Jesus was killed, when a large-scale Jewish rebellion against Roman rule brought the Imperial army to lay siege to the city. That took care of the Sadducees and the Temple priesthood, because there was no more Temple. The Essenes, the third Jewish faction mentioned by the gospel-writers’ contemporary, Josephus, were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and are thought to have removed themselves to the desert to wait for the apocalypse they expected.
So that left the Pharisees, who had not relied on the Temple for their religious identity but had instead organized themselves in the synagogues; unlike the elitist Sadducees, they had the support of the common people. Rejecting the traditions and privileges of the priesthood, the Pharisees emphasized the study of Torah, not only as written down in the Bible but also the oral tradition that went along with it and that was essential for interpreting the written words.
And as they strove to teach those traditions to the surviving Jewish population, to answer questions of what it meant to be Jewish when there was no longer a Temple, they earned the title of Teacher, which in Hebrew is Rabbi. And since there were no other Jewish authorities, this Judaism of the Rabbis simply became Judaism.
These developments were underway as the four gospels were being written, and at the same time that the Pharisees who separated themselves from other Jewish (particularly Temple) authorities were evolving into the Rabbis who were the only Jewish authorities, the followers of Jesus were evolving into an early form of Christianity as more non-Jews joined them. These developments were more advanced for John than for the synoptics, of course, so it’s not surprising that, while the followers of Jesus had never seen eye-to-eye with them, the Pharisees became the targets of particular hostility from John.
Anything written in a book intended to strengthen one group that so strongly criticizes another, competing group obviously needs to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. The term describing this in today’s information age is “filter bubble”, where the information given to someone is pre-selected based on their existing biases, reinforcing those biases rather than challenging them. That doesn’t excuse two thousand years of anti-semitism, of course, much less the anti-Jewish violence that continues to break out in our own times, in places such as Kansas just one week ago.
Now outside of the Bible, there’s not much mention of Jesus by other ancient writers. One place he is mentioned is in a book that Josephus wrote at the very end of the first century, entitled Antiquities of the Jews.
Josephus himself is thought to have been a Pharisee, or at least a high ranking Jew, and he led the Galilean forces of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. With the rebellion going badly, his garrison was defeated and Josephus surrendered. He was made to act as an interpreter and a negotiator during the siege of Jerusalem, and for his services was granted not only Roman citizenship but also imperial patronage. Settling down as a historian, Josephus first wrote about the rebellion in which he had played a part, before turning to everything that had led to it and writing Antiquities of the Jews.
It’s in that extensive work that Josephus refers to John the Baptist, to a Jesus who was condemned and crucified by the Roman authorities, and to a “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”. Now Josephus was writing about people who lived a decade before he was born, and it’s believed that the passage about Jesus was embellished a few centuries later by a Christian historian, but it’s notable that Josephus never mentions any animosity between the Pharisees and those who followed Jesus.
We might expect that there was some animosity, of course. Julius Caesar had granted Jews the right to follow their own religious practices, exempting them from having to worship the imperial gods, including the emperor himself. So there was relative harmony with the empire, so long as the Jewish leaders didn’t make waves, and that meant being very careful of anybody who criticized the otherwise cruel empire that permitted them such freedom. There were others who rocked the boat, but we know about two of them: John the Baptist and Jesus. If anything, it was John who was more dangerous to the Empire, but as Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan summarizes the differences in how Josephus describes them — and explains how John’s movement disappeared with him while that of Jesus thrived — “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.”
There’s a lot in our culture that’s influenced, for good and for bad, but what’s in the Bible, so it’s better for us if we understand it ourselves rather than let others dictate to us what they think it says. The Unitarian half of our heritage has long believed in the full humanity of Jesus, seeing him as a role model for resisting the forces of oppression and imperialism. But the Pharisees deserve some credit, and our sympathy, too, for they were doing what they thought was best, clinging to a boat amidst an all-powerful sea that had temporarily granted them life when it could so easily extinguish them. We would do well to remember that, when someone comes along and starts rocking our boat. But when it comes to seeking a better tomorrow, what will choose? Will we tell them to sit down, or will we join them?
So may it be.