A serious understanding of the New Testament must encompass a grasp of a Jewish religious sect called the Pharisees.  Even a light reader of the New Testament quickly discovers that Jesus is often plagued by the group.  Jesus’ radical ideas of freedom, human worth and dignity cause conflict with standard religious groups of the day as well as government authorities.  When it came to opposing Jesus, the Pharisees usually lead the charge.

The Pharisees were a necessary group.  The Jewish people were no longer self-governed and the Pharisees offered much needed guidance and interpretation of God’s Law.  Long before Jesus’ time, 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, King Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return and rebuild the Temple.  The Jewish people regained culture and worship. However, they did not regain the right to govern themselves.  A foreign rule oversaw every aspect of their lives, including the rebuilding of the Temple.  This brought into question the Temple’s authenticity.  Aside from this problem, the Jews brought with them 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 only.  The priestly class supervised the Second Temple.  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 duplicated their work by functioning as a political party, advocating the preservation of Jewish thought and culture in a world dominated by Roman practices (the political authority of Jesus’ day).  Yet they sought peace with the Roman occupiers by discouraging any military force by the Jewish people.  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 wasn’t a bad deal, as a matter the Pharisaical way of life sounds like a blue print for the Christian faithful.  So why does Jesus have such harsh words for the Pharisees? 

The bottom line was 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.  In addition, they assume that God’s blessings are to be earned.

“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?”
―  Mother Teresa

The United Methodist Church has rolled out its version of “right living” for churches called Vital Signs.  The check off list resembles God’s Kingdom on paper.  However, it does not address underlying attitudes, like compassion toward the least of these (children, elderly, immigrants, mentally challenged, for example).  Churches of any theological slant that adopt this attitude as a basis for ACTIVELY offering Christ will be the ones that thrive in this increasing multi-religious world.  The Pharisees had it right on paper but, according to Jesus, truly getting it right takes heart.