Who are the Pharisees today? The Pharisees emerged after the Maccabee revolt as a group dedicated to restoring the Jewish people’s dedication to the law. Although the Pharisees began with worthy goals of steering the Jewish nation back to covenant faithfulness, by the time of the New Testament, many Pharisees formed the leading edge of opposition to Jesus. In turn, Jesus did not hold back in his criticism of their hypocrisy. In a Christian context, a modern day “Pharisee” is someone who follows the impulse to be seen as righteous by obeying certain laws, while ignoring more important matters of the heart.
Throughout their history, the party of the Pharisees developed an extensive body of rabbinic teachings on how to apply the law to everyday situations. After the A.D. revolts against the Romans left the Jews without a temple and a homeland, Pharisee thought gave Rabbinic Judaism its shape. So, Pharisees have a long and multifaceted history, and when we ask, “Who are the Pharisees today?” we will be zooming in on Pharisaism as Jesus encountered it, described in the Gospels.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus criticized what he saw as a central tendency of the Pharisees to prioritize the wrong things. He said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
Jesus perpetually healed people on Sabbaths, because he was trying to get the Pharisees to stop obsessing about strict Sabbath-rule keeping and start caring about distressed people.
When we look into Pharisaism today, we’ll see how cultural currents, from the political right and left, have made it easy to be a self-satisfied Pharisee on either side and to sidestep Jesus’ program of transforming the entire heart.
Who are the Pharisees today? Introducing “Jeffersonian justification.”
In order to describe this tendency of Pharisees to prioritize the wrong things in their pursuit of righteousness, I’d like to share a phrase I made up: “Jeffersonian justification.”
What in the world is “Jeffersonian justification”?
First, Jeffersonian. As in, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third President. A Deist, Jefferson created his own New Testament by cutting and pasting sections until it contained Jesus’ morals minus his miracles. He called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, but most people simply call it the “Jefferson Bible.” In philosophical terms, Jefferson took out the Bible’s metaphysics and left its ethics. One of the main points of this article will be that it is common today to keep cutting and pasting where Jefferson left off. That is, where Jefferson left ethics intact, today it is common to continue slicing on Jesus’ ethics too. For our purposes, “Jeffersonian” will refer to our tendency to cut and paste our own versions of the whole.
“’Jeffersonian’ will refer to our tendency to cut and paste our own versions of the whole.”
Second, justification. This is one of the Bible’s salvation words. It means to declare someone to be righteous. Thus, Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). According to the New Testament, what’s the result of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection? It culminates in the forgiveness of our sins so that God can declare us righteous.
However, it is also worth noting that justification isn’t always just a God thing. We can attempt it ourselves. For example, when Jesus explained the difficult duty to love our neighbors as ourselves, the lawyer he was talking to cited a loophole: “Sure, I love my neighbor.” Look what the lawyer was trying to do:
“Justification isn’t always just a God thing. We can attempt it ourselves.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
So, there you have it: Salvation via scissors. The subject of this article is Jeffersonian justification, the key to understanding Pharisaism today.
Who are the Pharisees today? People who miss it.
Have you ever done something that was not your intention, but it was still your fault?
The summer of 2011, I decided I needed a summer haircut. And I was looking to save some money. Solution? Do it myself. Foolproof method: My parents had stored away some electric clippers, and they came with different sizes of guards. So you snap the guard on, run the clippers along your hair, and as long as your head isn’t too oddly shaped, you’ve got an inexpensive, passable haircut. For sake of the narrative, I stress that the guard makes sure you don’t get too close, but that you can still have a good head full of hair, nothing too dramatic.
“The guard makes sure you don’t get too close.”
So I say a prayer, go into the bathroom, shut the door, snap on the largest guard, plug it in, and start to run it along my hair. But it’s just getting caught, pulling my hair, not really cutting anything. Then I remember that there’s a little tube of oil to lube the clippers. That’s what it needs, I say to myself. So I unplug the clippers, run into the other room, grab the oil, run back into the bathroom, close the door, take off the guard, squirt three drops onto the blades, plug it in. And I’m thinking, Oh this is so much better. It’s smooth, not getting caught on anything. Here, let me look down in the sink. Yep, this is doing the job. Lots of hair in the sink. Quite a lot, in fact. Hmm.
So I look up in the mirror. On the top of my head, I am bald. There on the counter is the guard I forgot to snap back on.
Enter the Pharisees. The need for a guard is why Pharisees made so much sense. If the Hebrews’ national problems stemmed from their not obeying God’s laws (see the Old Testament), then the solution was to get back to following the Law. So seriously did the Pharisees take the Bible’s morals that they prescribed multiple guardrails to keep them from even getting close to going off the road of biblical teachings. For example, not only should you not work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8ff), but you shouldn’t even walk such-and-such a distance or carry such-and-such a weight or do such-and-such a routine task. The Pharisees made sure to snap on the guard.
“They prescribed multiple guardrails to keep them from even getting close to going off the road of biblical teachings.”
I got to thinking about it, and there have been some select individuals in history who have done the same thing as I did, so it’s not all bad. One individual who cut off his long hair was Gautama Buddha. Then 7 years later he attained enlightenment. Coincidence? Perhaps not. More recently, a famous individual who did a similar thing was Pedro Sanchez, the friend of Napoleon Dynamite. So I was in distinguished company.
Still, my wife didn’t quite know what to think about my new haircut. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So she simply said, “Well as long as you’re at it, you might as well go out and mow the yard. Here’s a hat.”
Now, I didn’t intend to make myself bald, but it was still my fault. It wasn’t my intention to look—as someone quipped a couple days later—like I had contracted lice. Not my intention, but still my fault. How can that be? The fact is, it happens all the time. Fender bender in the parking lot? It wasn’t your intention, but you were the one driving, so insurance says it was definitely your fault. Checking account overdraft? Not your intention, but definitely your fault. On vacation when you forget the fourth kid in the bathroom at the gas station? Usually not your intention, but, as the parent, definitely your fault.
“Not your intention, but definitely your fault.”
The captain of the Titanic didn’t intend to hit the iceberg. The French revolution was never intended to guillotine thousands of innocent people. The Communist revolution was never intended to kill millions of Russians. The American sexual revolution was never intended to cause 50 million aborted babies. No one usually intends giant oil spills or head-on collisions or tens of thousands in credit-card debt. Not their intention, but definitely their fault. Why? Because they should have been paying attention.
Good people though they were, the Pharisees weren’t paying attention. I’m no critic of the Pharisees per se. The first time these “separated ones” (that’s what their name probably means) show up in Jewish history, they were criticizing governmental overreach and stressing the need to get back to the Law. I appreciate that. They studied their Bibles studiously and emerged with above average theology.
By the time Jesus came along, however, they weren’t paying attention. How do we know? We know because they missed him. So wrapped up in their rules were they that, when Jesus started healing people from diseases, all they seemed to notice was the day Jesus was doing it—the Sabbath. He’s like, “Hey, guys! It’s me! Tribe of Judah, lineage of David, born of virgin, born in Bethlehem, both human and divine. Messiah’s finally here! I’m preaching the Gospel, raising the dead, healing the sick—”
“Yes,” they cut him off. “About that healing the sick. Did you or did you not perform your latest healing on a Sabbath?”
“Yes. About that healing the sick. Did you or did you not perform your latest healing on a Sabbath?”
It wasn’t their intention to miss the Messiah, but it was their fault. Why? They weren’t paying attention. Or perhaps they were paying attention—a lot of detailed attention—to the wrong things. The Law—in total 613 rules—was essentially 613 signposts pointing forward on the road to Messiah. “You need Jesus,” each sign declared. Yet many Pharisees never progressed past parking every few feet to snap photos of each sign from 72 different angles.
Good people though they were, they missed it. In fact, they missed it because they were good people. Good in what counted to them. Yet it turns out that the Pharisees were among the chief conspirators in crucifying the Messiah. Not their intention, but that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you miss the point.
Who are the Pharisees today? People for whom the point becomes the problem.
There’s a commercial in which a lady walks up to the counter and says, “Hello! I’d like to order French fries, a burger, and a milkshake.” The lady behind the counter looks puzzled. “This is a library,” she says. The other lady looks around the room. The momentary look of confusion transitions into a knowing smile. Then she turns back to the librarian. This time she whispers, “I’d like to order French fries, a burger, and a milkshake.” Nothing like missing the point.
“Nothing like missing the point.”
I saw a poster of a triangle. Exciting, huh? First side of the triangle says “4 cm.” Second side says “3 cm.” Third said says “X.” Underneath the triangle it says “Find X.” On the poster someone has drawn an arrow to the X, circled the X and written, “Here it is.” Nothing like missing the point.
Comedian Tim Hawkins actually gives some solid marriage advice. Hawkins says, “One of the conflict resolution tools they teach in marriage is ask questions. When you have a disagreement, don’t just start spewing out what you think, make it worse. Ask questions, try to relate, make it better.” He continues, “I used that last week. My wife and I got into a disagreement. It got hot, it got heated. We started to fight. I stopped myself right there. Start asking questions: ‘Honey, why are you being a psycho right now?’” Nothing like missing the point.
But there is something worse than missing the point. And that is missing the point so badly that you begin to see the point as the problem.
“There is something worse than missing the point: missing the point so badly that you begin to see the point as the problem.”
Let me give an example. Leadership expert John Maxwell writes about one evening, as he and his wife were driving by the Krispy Kreme donuts shop, the “Hot Donuts Now” light wasn’t on, but they stopped anyway. Imagine their joy when, as they entered, they discovered that the donuts were nonetheless coming right off the conveyer belt—hot and fresh. As they enjoyed their donuts, John told the young lady behind the counter, “You forgot to turn on the sign to let the customers know the donuts are warm and fresh.” Here’s what the young lady said:
“Oh, I don’t turn that sign on a lot of the time. The moment I do, people come into the store, and we get too busy. If I keep the sign off, it’s less hectic.”
She was missing the point so badly that she began to actually see the point as the problem. The point was to get customers into the store to sell donuts, but in her mind the point had become the problem.
“In her mind the point had become the problem.”
How about this example: College student enrolls in classes, checks into the dorm, and spends afternoons, evenings, nights, weekends playing video games. Halfway through the semester, when it becomes clear that the student is failing his classes, his academic advisor tells him he’s got to bring his grades up or he’s out. College student replies, “Well, you know the problem? The problem is that the professors assign so much homework!” So what happened to this college student? He was missing the point so badly that he began to actually see the point as the problem. What’s the point of college? To have fun? No, to get an education. And in his mind, the point had become the problem.
You work hard to provide for your family. You get home late. You crash in front of the computer or the TV. Weeks, months, years of this kind of schedule. Your spouse explains that you’ve got to spend more time with the family. You respond that the company has got you working this many hours, and you just don’t have the kind of time to spend with the kids. You wish you could but….
What have you just done? You’ve not only missed the point. What was the point of work? It was to provide for your family. Your family was the point. Yet somehow, having to spend time with your family has become the problem. Now the family—the point—has become something in the way, a burden, an obstacle.
What was the point of the Old Testament? This side of the first Christmas, the point seems obvious: it was to give picture after picture of Jesus before he came. Abraham sacrificing his beloved son. The wrath of God passing over the wooden doorpost with the lamb’s blood. The priest without defect offering up the sacrifice without defect. The redemption of Hosea’s wayward wife. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant punished for our sins. The coming covenant which would remember our sins no more. The temple veil which would rip in two at his death. The point of the Old Testament was to point ahead to Jesus.
“The Pharisees were missing the Point so badly that the Point became the problem.”
Yet the Pharisees were missing the Point so badly that the Point became the problem. Jesus became for them the awkwardly imposing “stone that the builders rejected,” which has now “become the cornerstone” of God’s new covenant (Ps. 118:22). Jesus the Point became Jesus the problem, because he set himself squarely in the way of what they were trying to build. Good people though they were, they missed it. In fact, they missed it because they were good people. Their perceived goodness became their biggest smokescreen to seeing Jesus.
A Conversation Between a Pharisee and Joy
What makes a Pharisee a Pharisee? Most people today assume that it has to do with their obsession with rules, whereas Jesus came and did away with rules. Is that how it really happened? Let’s imagine letters back-and-forth between a Pharisee and joy:
Some people live as though life were a giant Monopoly board. You seem to live as if life is the “no smile” game. If so, you clearly win. Everybody else smiled big when the blind man saw Jesus’ face, the leper felt his touch, and the corpse woke to his voice. But for you, not even a slight curling of the lips.
Jesus’ “good news” hit you like a headline of doom. Why?
Simply because lawlessness, however likably it is packaged, isn’t good news. It is clear that Jesus came to abolish our Law. What arrogance! Anyone who struts around like he created the Sabbath has pretensions as high as heaven itself.
We’re trying to rebuild our nation upon God’s laws. We find ourselves obstructed by this Friend of sinners.
“We’re trying to rebuild our nation upon God’s laws. We find ourselves obstructed by this Friend of sinners.”
I think you’re being unfair. Jesus himself explained, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). And Friend of sinners though He is, He is no friend of sin. Of the Final Judgment, Jesus anticipates having to say to some, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matt. 7:23).
Far from denigrating morality, Jesus deepened it. After explaining to his disciples that their righteousness must “surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5:20), He went on to give example after example of aiming for a righteousness of the heart, rather than mere technical obedience on issues. He urged his disciples not to stop at merely not murdering, not committing adultery, not going back on oaths, etc. Rather, he trained his disciples to pursue reconciliation with enemies, purity in sexual thoughts, honesty in everyday speech, etc. (see Matt. 5:21-48).
Does that really seem like the talk of a moral anarchist to you?
Okay, perhaps I was exaggerating. But the people of God need to be known by a distinctive—something that sets the people of God apart from everyone else. Is it our temple sacrifices that set us apart? No, other groups perform sacrifices. And temples can be destroyed, as our first temple was destroyed centuries ago. Even circumcision is practiced more widely than the Jewish community. But the Sabbath is totally unique to the people of God. It’s given more space than any other of the 10 Commandments.
What’s more is that Jews have literally died for the Sabbath. At the outset of the Maccabee revolution, a thousand Jews allowed themselves to be murdered by Seleucid soldiers without even the slightest resistance. Why? Because the attack took place on the sacred Sabbath.
Six days shall work be done, but the seventh is a Sabbath. Why does Jesus insist on healing people on the Sabbath of all days? And, I might add, have you noticed the people he chooses to heal? It’s from the lawless crowd that he picks people not only to heal, but to become his disciples and dinner partners.
If we’re not going to be known by such distinctives as observing holy days and associating with holy people, what else could possibly set us apart?
“What else could possibly set us apart?”
You know how you and other rabbis will debate whether a commandment is weighty or light? Jesus weighed in too, if you remember. He was launching “woes” when He said this:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:23-24)
Notice what Jesus values more than the particularity of actions (which can be done with any manner of attitudes): He emphasizes the righteousness of the heart: justice, mercy, faithfulness. Mishnaic Sabbath rules are to him a gnat. One of Jesus’ disciples Paul put it this way:
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17)
You ask what—besides holy days and holy associations—could set the people of God apart. Jesus answered with what is at the top of his value system: sacrificial love.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Your grumpiness isn’t because Jesus was teaching lawlessness, but rather because he missed the mark on what you consider morally important. If so, then you can understand his frustration with you as well, for he is convinced that you have missed the mark.
“Jesus is convinced that you have missed the mark.”
Jesus brings “good” news. The question is whether we’re talking about a national good: keep the law, restore the kingdom of Israel, drive out Israel’s occupiers. If so, his news isn’t nearly as good as you might hope, and you could rightly see a lot of his morality (e.g. “love your enemies”) as obstructions. However, if we’re talking about news that’s good for the whole world (“For God so loved the world . . .”), then he seems to have an ethic that could spread life throughout a decaying planet.
Pharisees want something. . .
As fallen and weak humans, we tend to hide our mixed motives and parade our good intentions. Why? We tend to do our depravity in the dark. Why? We make sure we’re at our most praiseworthy in the light. When accused, we defend. When implicated, we blame. When found out, we say things like, “I didn’t . . .,” followed by, “I didn’t mean to . . .,” followed by, “Well, I had a good reason to . . .” Why do we do this?
The thought of death and judgment terrifies us into trying salvation paths and self-help plans. Failing that, we settle for distractions to mask our omnipresent anxiety. Why all these things? It’s because we want justification.
We desperately desire to be declared righteous.
. . . that doesn’t exist
The good news is that it’s possible to be declared righteous. The bad news is that it’s a very bad bet to try getting justified through getting just a few ethics right. What Jefferson did to the New Testament was vivisection. He took something living and sliced it to pieces. You can’t rip wings off the bird and expect it to still fly. At least, Jefferson surmised, he still had Jesus’ ethics. But surely something as radically self-sacrificial as Jesus’ ethics lose their appeal if all they end up doing is getting you crucified. When you stop recognizing Jesus’ ultimate authority, further cutting and pasting of his ethics are inevitable.
We hardly need any excuse for cutting and pasting ethics. Naturally, we’re all already pickers and choosers when it comes to ethics. Knowing our tendency to ignore commands that don’t come naturally, Jesus did us an amazing favor. He summarized ethics in two commands: Love God and love people. Pretty hard to ignore something put so plainly.
Yet, our tendency to pick and choose is so ingrained that, even with it down to two, we still like to pick one and ignore the other. Do you know anybody who is quite religious (“love God”) but can’t get along with people (“love people”)? You know anybody who would do anything for anybody (“love people”) but won’t give his Creator even a second thought (“love God”)? We tend to feel that so long as we champion a good cause of some sort (e.g. animal rights, limited government, women’s liberation, fiscal responsibility, etc.), we’re good people. Slice, slice, slice.
Who are the Pharisees today? “Our tendency to pick and choose is so ingrained that, even with it down to two, we still like to pick one and ignore the other.”
And even when we really want to be good—not merely to do a few good deeds, or master a few virtues, or champion a good cause—it doesn’t naturally go well. This is because, often, when you’re focusing hard on A, you forget to do B. And when you correct yourself and start doing B, you forget to do A.
Who are the Pharisees today? Those who do A so they can forget B.
As a 3rd grader, I took piano lessons, and this is how they would typically go:
“Daniel, your fingers are flat on the keys. You’ve got to keep your fingers up, keep them round. Good, good. Remember, Daniel, it says an eighth note, not a quarter note. No, you’re playing an F, you’ve got to play G. Remember where the G is? Show me the G. Good, see now you’re playing G. Now, remember to count. Out loud, not just in your head. I need to hear you count. Good. Now remember, keep your fingers round. They’re down again. Keep them up. Good. No, no, no—now you’re playing a quarter note again. What does it say? Eighth note. Does it say to play an F? No, what does it say? Yep, it is says G. I don’t hear you counting. Fingers round. Eighth note, Daniel. Good. Eighth note. Yes, very nice eighth notes. Oh. Remember, it’s not an F, it’s a what? It says G. Yep, good. Ah, ah, ah, keep those fingers round. You’re forgetting to count again.”
Who are the Pharisees today? “Sometimes when you’re focusing really hard on A, you forget to do B.”
Sometimes when you’re focusing really hard on A, you forget to do B. Then when you think, Oh I’ve got to focus on B, you forget to do A.
There’s an Andy Griffith episode featuring a couple named Fred and Jeanie. They are really friendly to everybody in town, including Andy. Yet when Fred and Jeannie are together, relating to each other, they yell and throw things at each other. But again, they’re super nice people to everybody else in town. Because they’re causing so many domestic disputes, Andy finally steps in to do some marriage counseling. And it works! They start being nice to each other. The upshot is that they stop being nice to everybody else. In the end, everybody misses the way they used to be, so Andy decides to get them fighting with each other. The show ends with Fred and Jeanie finally being nice to everybody else in town as they start throwing things at each other. A and B can be tough.
And ethics is a lot more than just an A and a B. It’s a matter of speaking the truth—in love. Pursuing justice while maintaining joy. Being “light” in the world without losing your distinctive “saltiness.” Defending the faith while remaining gentle and respectful. Being softhearted and yet clear-headed. Influencing others while controlling oneself. Forgiving sinners without rationalizing sin. Seeking perfection without surrendering peace. Being virtuous without becoming prideful. A and B and C and D and so on. All the while remembering that rock beats scissors, and that scissors beats paper (i.e. discerning “camel” from “gnat”). For it’s not just a matter of doing the right actions, but of valuing the right priorities (i.e., not neglecting the “weightier” matters of the law) and cultivating the right characteristics (e.g., love, joy, peace, etc.).
“It’s not just a matter of doing the right actions, but of valuing the right priorities and cultivating the right characteristics.”
In light of all which true ethics in its fullness encompasses, Jeffersonian justification is shown to be a sham. It’s not merely a long shot; it’s a non-thing. Being truly righteous via picking just a few ethical precepts to prioritize isn’t worth pursuing, because it’s not the kind of thing that actually exists.
Who are the Pharisees today? Here are a couple types of many.
One of the places Pharisaism can be the thickest is in Christianity-and-politics alliances. Cultural currents from the political right and left have made it effortless for Christians to become self-satisfied Pharisees on either side.
From the Right
If modern-day Pharisaism is a matter of being declared righteous for obeying certain rules, then rightist politics has certainly carved out its own rightist vision of righteousness. If you want to be declared a righteous person on this side of the political aisle, here are some of the most important rules you’ll need to follow: Don’t question fundamental principles upon which the nation was built. Don’t denigrate the military. Don’t invite governmental intervention into financial matters. Don’t loosen borders. Don’t do anything that would disincentive work and productivity. Don’t disrespect the flag. Don’t vote for liberals.
It’s one thing to agree with these kinds of rules. It’s another to use them to define what it means to live a righteous life. As a cut-and-paste vision, it leaves out important heart-level pursuits: For example, if this is your vision of what counts as righteousness, one thing that gets left out is having to be gracious toward your political enemies. And you also don’t have to pray for people on the other political side—unless it’s just praying that their side loses in the upcoming election. In its more militant forms, such a vision of righteousness can imply that it’s better not to think hard or feel deeply about anybody other than your own political party or nation.
Who are the Pharisees today? “One thing that gets left out is having to be gracious toward your political enemies.”
If that’s your vision of what counts as a righteous person, Jesus will get in the way.
From the Left
It was once political leftists who argued for freedom to define morality and freedom to believe what you want. This makes it so surprising to see from the progressive left a preponderance of stringent rules you must follow in order to be declared righteous. Leftist “intersectionalists” tell what’s wrong with economic systems, business models, family structures, beauty ideals, sexual beliefs, gender norms, Scripture interpretations, health standards, sex-education curriculum, mental health diagnoses, citizenship, homelessness, international politics.
All the while, the strictness of the imperatives rivals the stringency of Leviticus (a typical article title: “6 Reasons Your Discomfort with They/Them Pronouns Reveals Unchecked Cis Privilege”). If the Hebrews felt sheepish for how they’d been unknowingly sinning (“You mean it’s a sin to grave images?”), they’d seen nothing: microaggressions hadn’t been invented. Leftist intersectionalists specify thou shalt not’s down to forbidden attitudes, questions, and individual words.
Who are the Pharisees today? “They specify thou shalt not’s down to forbidden attitudes, questions, and individual words.”
And if you happen to be white or male or cisgender or heterosexual? Then you’re going to have never-ending rule upon rule upon rule (don’t say this, don’t assume this, don’t do this, don’t think this, etc.) in order to “do the work” and assuage the guilt for being a privileged, unknowingly oppressive force in society.
If that’s your vision of what counts as a righteous person, Jesus will get in the way.
Pharisaism, whether from the political right or left, offers righteousness via obeying a subsection of the ethical life. It ends up sidestepping Jesus’ program of transforming the entire heart.
An Invitation to Modern-Day Pharisees
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
In light of all that true ethics encompasses, what hope for true justification is there? How can we be declared righteous when we so clearly aren’t? We could start by trying to be and do all that goodness demands. But why should flawed future attempts make up for decades of flawed past attempts?
Who of us isn’t the “Pharisee”? Who of us hasn’t sought to be declared righteous because we’ve hit the marks that we consider important? And perhaps it’s even worked, as we’ve been declared righteous by the people who see us at our best. What counts, however, is being declared righteous by God.
“What counts is being declared righteous by God.”
So, what do we have to do to be declared righteous by God? Actually, in Christianity, the word isn’t do but done. As in, what Jesus has already done. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). There’s quite the theological truth here. This is amazingly good news considering the sky-high ethical standards Jesus has set for us with his sacrificial love. Pharisaism might have initially prevented people from seeing Jesus as “good guy.” But this side of the Cross, the futility of Pharisaism—with its anxieties and impossibilities—presents a very logical invitation to accept Jesus: Let the anxieties and impossibilities of your sham justification lead you to realize how much you need Jesus.
There was only One whose ethics hit the mark. So full of truth that it got him crucified, yet so full of grace that it was part of his plan all along. Murderous toward sin and merciful toward sinners. Touching those with infectious diseases and dining with those with infectious reputations, his was a value system that exposed ours as ugly. The Pharisee, rich and respected, sneered down at the woman, socially and spiritually stained. If he knew what kind of woman this is, he wouldn’t let her anoint his feet like that…
“The Pharisee, rich and respected, sneered down at the woman, socially and spiritually stained.”
The Son of God doesn’t need to impress anybody, though. So Jesus confronted the Pharisee’s callousness and asked him, “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44). Good question. Jesus truly saw people. He didn’t treat them like steps on an agenda, but rather as ends in themselves. He saw even society’s throwaways: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matt. 12:20a). He showed us that we needn’t choose between loving God and loving people, but rather that we show that we love God by loving people.
And it’s because Jesus hit the mark in every way that he became the “sacrifice without defect” that could take our place. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Unfair trade for Jesus, but it was done by the book: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement…to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25–26). We can be declared righteous by putting our trust and allegiance in Jesus.
“We can be declared righteous by putting our trust and allegiance in Jesus.”
What’s the catch? No catch. It’s just that God loves you.
It’s difficult letting someone love you completely when that person knows you completely. If the person knows everything about you and still claims to love you without condition, you feel there must be a catch. Especially when it comes to God from whom nothing about you is hidden.
I think we could more easily understand it if God said to us, “I accept your obedience.” I think we could understand it if God said, “I acknowledge your submission.” I think we even understand it when God says, “I erase your sins from the record.” But you know what we have trouble understanding? It’s when God says, “I love you.” We have trouble understanding the clearest message in the whole Bible: “For God so loved…”
“We have trouble understanding the clearest message in the whole Bible: ‘For God so loved…'”
Somehow, we translate God’s “I love you” as, “If you really want God to love you, then you better get your act together with these specific rules.” No. Pause. He loves you.
Receiving that is where real justification begins.
 See Genesis 49:10; Jeremiah 33:15; Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2; Isaiah 9:6-7.
 VideoTime, “Library by Mercedes Benz,” Online Video Clip, YouTube, 2 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQNItVY9vrc (accessed July 22, 2016).
 John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold: Lessons I’ve Learned from a Lifetime of Leading (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 85-86.
 I Maccabees 2:27-38.
 Ashley Truong, “6 Reasons Your Discomfort with They/Them Pronouns Reveals Unchecked Cis Privilege,” Everyday Feminism, 22 December 2015, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/they-pronouns-cis-privilege/ (July 22, 2016).