On Pharisees

Dear Hannah,

If you've spent any amount of time with Christians, you've heard them toss the term Pharisee around.  This means if you have a brain, you've realized that the term Pharisee is used by Christians as frequently and unfairly as the term Hitler is used by political activists.  In essence, everyone who's doing better than us, who's asking us to take God more seriously, or who's asking us to do things differently than we're currently doing them, is a Pharisee.  We'd do much better to recognize that the people most like the Pharisees -- or, in other words, the people with their same prejudices, their follies, and their theological silliness -- are the ultra-orthodox Jews.  But then I suppose we'd be in danger of being called Hitler.

If you really want to boil the essence of the Pharisee into an insult, you could start with the idea of being a completely self-absorbed and prideful jackass.  But the Pharisee is more than prideful: he's extremely stupid.  He never thinks for himself.   He takes the rules that God gave him so seriously that he makes them a mockery.  He's the kind of guy who heard he wasn't supposed to shave the temples of his head like the pagans do, and so he wears the stupidest curls the world has ever seen.  He's the man who heard he wasn't supposed to till on the Sabbath or kindle a fire, so he forbids everyone to spit on dirt and to flip on a light switch.  Commanded to not cook a young goat in its mother's milk, he demands a separate plate for his milk and his meat -- and if he's told to keep the Law on his mind, he takes an actual scroll and ties it literally to his forehead.  Nevermind metaphors about purity and atonement: he thinks that pigs and polyester blends are actually abominable, and that God's wrath is really appeased by barbeques.  People say that the Bible is the only rule we need for life, but it's really only half the rule.  The other half is a healthy, right-thinking brain to make sense of the Bible.   

If you want to keep from being a Pharisee, the best advice I can give you is to not take the Bible too literally -- but be sure to read and know all of it, so you can know how to balance one statement with another.  Keep your nose to the ground, and be a poet. If Jesus says to love your enemy, or to go the extra mile, or to turn the other cheek, know that He doesn't mean to get rid of all our weapons and make rapists rich and comfortable.  This is what some ridiculous Christians essentially preach, but thankfully never seriously attempt -- and also the reason they're confused when they encounter other passages which tell them to do the opposite.

A person who reads his Bible knows, first of all, that if Jesus said keeping the Law was the definition of love (Matt 22:34-40), that loving must be something between shooting an intruder (Exodus 22:2) and helping your enemy fix his flat tire when you see him on the side of the freeway (Exodus 23:4-5) -- or in other words, a balance between common sense and uncommon charity.  An even wiser person knows that by all His radical statements about forgiving debtors and such, He's saying that it's much better to suffer wrong than to do wrong -- which is why He says it's better to let someone run all over you than to be vindictive, and better to lose an arm than to steal.  A serious Muslim takes this more literally: he'll chop off another man's hand if a doughnut is stolen.  A "Pharisee" would chop off his own hand, if he couldn't keep from stealing.  A stupid Christian legitimizes thievery by saying that nobody should ever have to pay a Christian back.  A good Christian simply stops stealing. 

If you want to keep from being a Christian Pharisee, boil The Sermon on the Mount into these essential points, and call it good: you'll find that the teachings of Jesus are the purest and wisest principles that mankind has ever seen -- if they're interpreted correctly.  Generalization through paraphrasing, especially with The Sermon, is the key to a good and practical Christianity: for specifics, consult The Law, and apply your reason to discern the spirit of it.  For idiocy, take the Sermon on the Mount literally.  To end up in hell, take it literally and then turn it into a political philosophy. 

The Sermon on the Mount, condensed:

1) Trust in God: your fate is in His hands. (Matthew 6:25-34)
2) Whatever happens, make sure you don't do what's wrong. (Matthew 5:38-45; 29-30)
3) Be gracious and just, whoever you're dealing with. (Matthew 5:44-48)
4) Be ready to forgive and make peace if possible. (Matthew 6:14-15; 5:23-24)
5) Do what you say that you'll do. (Matthew 5:31-37)
6) How you treat people is more important than religious rituals.  (Matthew 5:23-24; 6:14-15)
7) What you focus on becomes you: your thoughts matter. (Matthew 6:22-23; 5:21-28)
8) Don't do good to show off.  (Matthew 6:1-8)
9) Your reward for virtue is happiness and heaven, not earthly comfort. Your goodness is between you and God. (Matthew 6:19-21; 5:3-12)
10) Keep your priorities in order: God is more dangerous than men.  (Matthew 5:29-30)
11) If you want to criticize someone else, first make sure you're not doing the same thing. (Matthew 7:1-5)
12) Share the Gospel and do good works publicly, but know your audience. (Matthew 5:14-16; Matthew 7:6)
13) Recognize people by their behaviors, not just their speech. (Matthew 7:15-17; 21-23)
14) Those who want to find God will find Him.  (Matthew 7:7-12)

You should know that in my personal experience, none of these commandments has been more beneficial than the one to love your enemies.  I can't count the number faces I've practically been ready to smash that I could barely keep from kissing later, simply because Jesus told me to pray for them when I rather would have hit their knees with a baseball bat.  Take it seriously, as it will save you a lot of trouble -- but be reasonable, and always shoot a malicious intruder.

Your father,


  1. Excellent article, Jeremy. In adding my personal flavor of perception, I would redefine all of us as having the potential of being a Pharisee ( and in many areas we are), because all of us have the potential of interpreting God-truths in a non-spirit-focused ( or literal ) fashion.

    This was the issue the Jews failed in, and subsequently turned the Mosaic Law into Modern Judaism ( which is Satanic in the least ), and the Catholics did with their Rosaries and Hail Mary's, and our modern fundamentalists have done with their anti-rock-in-roll / home school movements. ( Obviously, I'm not saying homeschooling is bad, but when stupid people do it, it quickly becomes so. )

    2 Timothy 2:15 reminds us that we should be rightly dividing the word of truth. Obviously, we can break it down in the Greek, and it pretty much says the same thing, but they key is to this verse is just before it -- "Stop fighting about words" in verse 14, but "a worker who has no need to be ashamed," who is "approved by God" which means δόκιμον -- or "genuine" through "trials." We tend to get caught up in what "exactly" a verse means, but in reality, God's word is to be used in action, not in seminary.

    And most of the people who debate Theology are just as prone to fall to sin as their less analytical brethren, and that is because God's word is only truly revealed when we've put it into practice.

    Thus, humble practicality is the key to making any of the Bible make sense, because it wasn't written for the elite or academics... it was written for us, the laymen.

    God saves sinners, not those who think they can save themselves by accurately following a moral code.


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