It’s a word I’ve heard Christian people use as a slur, shorthand for a sanctimonious legalistic person with no sense of mercy, often explicitly set up as an adversary to so-called Gospel ethics.
It’s one of those very interesting terms that seems to have crossed the political divide among Christians. I’ve heard both mainliners and evangelicals use it to refer to the same sort of person as described above. Heck, I’ve even heard mainliners use it to describe evangelicals.
As hard as people try, it’s really not possible in a post-Holocaust world to speak of Pharisees like this without invoking a long history of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic rhetoric. We have a tendency to split the God of our faith into two: the mean judgmental “Old Testament” God, and the good and kind “Daddy” God that Jesus talks about – as though Jesus was not Jewish and wasn’t firmly anchored within his own tradition. This is actually one of the first heresies recorded in the early church. It’s called Marcionism, after its first proponent Marcion of Sinope, who believed that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, and that indeed the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible was an entirely different god from the God of Jesus, who had taken no part in the creation of the world. Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome around the year 144.
If we want to be in right relationship with the Jewish people, we need to re-evaluate the way we talk about our roots and our shared Scriptures. That includes coming to a new understanding of the Pharisees.
Some scholars have argued that Jesus himself could be described as a Pharisee. There is a notion (again, low-key anti-Semitic if you think about it) that the Pharisees were all wealthy educated folks who took delight in ordering poor people around. But they weren’t. Pharisee wasn’t really a class of people so much as a lens for looking at Scripture. Pharisees stood in contrast with Sadducees who were Temple priests insisting on proper protocols for worship, which heavily privileged Jerusalem and temple sacrifice as crucial for the following of the Torah. Pharisees, by contrast, insisted that ordinary people could keep the Law and be faithful Jews whether they had the capability of accessing Jerusalem and the appropriate resources for sacrifice or not.
You can see why some would put Jesus into that camp.
It’s likely that any arguments that occurred between Jesus and the Pharisees were more of an intra-religious debate which, over the years, were interpreted as Jesus people fighting with, well, not Jesus-people – especially for the writer of Luke, who was probably not Jewish and may not have really understood the heritage of the faith.
Now, on to the parable.
Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish New Testament scholar who deacon Alisdair quoted last week, has done a lot of work to help re-imagine the figure of the Pharisee.
I’m going to quote from her at length here. She writes,
“Some Christian readers dismiss the Pharisee as hypocritical, sanctimonious, and legalistic, and in turn identify with the tax collector, the appropriately repentant and humble sinner. However, this reading traps interpreters: to conclude (following 18.11), “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee,” places the readers in the very position they condemn. Moreover, this interpretation overlooks the Pharisee’s numerous supererogatory qualities: tithing, fasting, giving thanks without asking for something in return.
Other readers presume that the tax collector stands “far off” (18.13) because other worshipers ostracize him, believing him to be ritually impure. The parable says nothing about either ostracism or impurity; to the contrary, to enter the temple a person must be ritually pure. Even were he ostracized, the cause would not be impurity but employment: he works for Rome, the occupation government.
Still other readers perceive the Temple to have become an elitist, xenophobic, misogynist, fully corrupt “domination system.” Again, the parable thwarts this stereotype, since it is in the Temple that repentance and reconciliation occur.
Finally, might we see the Pharisee as helping the tax collector. Just as the sin of one person impacts the community (hence, e.g., “forgive us our sins” [11.4] rather than “forgive me my sins”), so the merits of the righteous can benefit the community (see Gen 18.24-33; hence one view of the cross: the sacrifice of one can save the many). Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock: not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helped in that justification.”
Can the good works of one really redeem the bad works of another?
Sometimes, when I’m deeply frustrated by the hypocrisy, power-hoarding, racism, and homophobia of this institutional Anglican Church, I think of those within it who carry out the good work of God quietly, with compassion and perseverance. I think of you, doing your best to love God and your neighbour in a lonely world that demands much of us.
I’m going to sit now and welcome your stories of times where you’ve seen the good overcome the bad, where the arc of the moral universe has bent toward justice, perhaps even where your own mind has been changed by the gentleness of others.
Again, it’s something we all need to hear.