The Pharisees get a bad rap in modern preaching. They are consistently type-cast as insincere, scheming, self-serving hypocrites. Their motives are always evil. They are villains, scoundrels, antiheroes. In a movie featuring Pharisees, they would be the ones twirling their mustaches and cackling fiendishly.

In fact, many Pharisees were good, sincere, God-loving people who earnestly wanted to please God with the way they lived. Nicodemus (who came to Jesus by night and, eventually, became his disciple) was a Pharisee (Jn 3:1). Many of the first believers in Acts were members of the party of the Pharisees (Jn 12:42; Acts 15:5).

However, to be frank, preachers talk about Pharisees this way because the Gospel accounts are not flattering to Pharisees. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John consistently portray these religious leaders in the worst possible light. They are the primary opponents of Jesus in the gospels. Not the Romans. Not the tax collectors and sinners. Not idolatrous pagans.

Pharisees. Teachers of the Law. The religious authority figures who have cornered the market on piety and positioned themselves as the moral arbiters of the Hebrew people.

Every time the Pharisees and religious leaders show up in Mark, they are criticizing something Jesus said or did. They are watching for ways to catch him, asking questions to trap him, calling him names and accusing him of being demon-possessed.

And their opposition to Jesus is growing. Already at this point in Mark’s story, they are plotting to kill Jesus. In the end, it will be the religious authorities who orchestrate his death.

And the defining characteristic of the Pharisees was their fondness for rules and traditions. They loved the comfort of ritual. They saw the keeping of tradition as the essence of faithfulness. So they meticulously, religiously, kept the Sabbath customs and observed food laws and washed their hands to protect their ceremonial cleanliness.

The Pharisees practiced an almost scientific approach to faith:

·     Keep faith observable, tangible, measurable.

·     Faith is expressed through obedience … and obedience can be seen and tested.

·     Don’t talk about how much you love God. Show me with what you do!

·     Faith isn’t a matter of motives or intentions or relationship. (Touchy-feely stuff!)

·     It’s about life-style and law-keeping and tradition-observance. (The stuff you can see and quantify and demonstrate.)

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