Today, a closer look at the earthly life of Jesus shows us that he was very tolerant toward all sorts of human failure except the ways of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In his teaching, he used very often a hard language in reference to the life style of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
To these people, Jesus used a language tougher than the one he used when talking about his own killers; whom he protected as people who did not know what they were doing.
The Pharisees’ way of life presented such a serious danger to the teaching of Jesus that he found it necessary to caution his audience not to follow their bad example.
To our present moment, the same words of Jesus continue to ring a warning signal in our ears, raising a number of worrying questions: Who were the Pharisees in the first place?
Why did Jesus so dislike their style of life? Does our way of life have some similarities to that of the Pharisees such that Jesus’ words to them might be applicable to us today?
Generally the Pharisees were middleclass businessmen admired by the common man; a fact which made them some kind of opinion leaders in Israel. Religiously, they gave much authority to their oral traditional teaching, which we now call the Old Testament.
Unfortunately the Pharisees sought to obey their traditions in a fanatic and legalistic way. In some instances, they did this to the disrespect of God’s word.
In addition to this, they assumed the prophetic role, hence equating their own precepts and laws to the message of authentic prophets.
In different gatherings, they wanted people to follow their petty arguments and their rigorous interpretations of the law without questions.
This confused the common man as far as their role in community was concerned. As if that was not enough, they were very inconsistent in what they taught and what they practised.
In their daily life, they kept a high degree of exhibitionism, always wanting to attract the attention of the people in all they did and said.
Their behaviour earned very public criticism from Jesus. The list of criticism that he directed to them is sometimes referred to as the ‘woes of the Pharisees’: like when Jesus criticised them that they were shutting the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces (Matthew 23, 13-14); that they were obeying the minutiae of the law but neglecting the important facets of justice and mercy - metaphorically straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (Matthew 23, 23-24).
He criticised them of being very shallow- metaphorically cleaning the outside of the cup and dish but leaving the inside full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23,25-26).
Jesus accused them of hypocrisy; appearing righteous but actually being full of wickedness. Whenever we think of why Jesus used such a hard language toward the Pharisees, we are challenged into examining our own ways of life in order to find out if we are different from them.
Is it not possible that the Pharisees may still be alive and well in ourselves?
In our modern age, a number of psychologists tell us that hypocrisy is a common feature in us. According to the psychology of hypocrisy, man continues to show a considerable lack of sincerity and in his or her hypocritical behaviour he or she claims to be what he or she is not. This is mainly observable in the way we like to judge others while protecting ourselves.
When we make a mistake, we would like to explain it away as the influence of our environment, while in others the same mistake we judge it as due to their negative ‘innate characteristics’.
We are tempted to look at ourselves as victims of different situations, and at the same time to judge others as intrinsically evil and in need of correction.
As a consequence, the contemporary man fails to recognise that he or she has real character faults to which he or she needs to pay attention.
Another pharisaic trait common in our style of life today is fanaticism. It is being filled with excessive and uncritical zeal in what we are and what we do or say.
It is one of the sentiments that Jesus did not like in the Pharisees, and he must not like it in us. As a way of warning, the philosopher George Santayana defines fanaticism as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim,” and Winston Churchill cautions us that a fanatic is “one who cant change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
These two thinkers in their analysis of the modern man’s ways are telling us that the “Pharisees” are indeed “immortal” hence present in ourselves. In which case Jesus is calling us in the same way he called the Pharisees to a change of heart.