What’s Wrong with the Pharisees?

I’ve often heard people say something like, “You know, it would be so much easier to believe what we hear about Jesus if we were there with him. I mean, surely if we got to hear his preaching and got to see his miracles and him casting out demons, surely then there would be no doubt left within us. We would be strong in faith; we’d have nothing left to doubt since we would’ve seen it all with our own eyes.”

I understand the feeling, and I’ve thought about it myself too. But I think this idea misunderstands how good we are at not believing what God says and does. Unbelief comes so naturally to us. That’s why we need God to give us the faith to trust him. We wouldn’t be able to do it on our own. After all, look at all the people who were around with Jesus when he was alive. Sure, a lot believed him, but a lot didn’t. Many of the people in Jesus’ day, like the Pharisees, saw and heard what Jesus did and said, yet still refused to trust him.

In fact, it seems like every other story in the Gospels features Jesus going toe-to-toe with the Pharisees. They seem to oppose him at every turn. Whenever he’s preaching about the coming kingdom of God, there they are shaking their heads, refusing to believe him. They may say they’ll believe him if he gives them a miracle to prove himself. But then whenever he does a miracle, they still reject him. Even when Jesus casts out demons, the Pharisees still oppose him, saying that the only reason he can cast out demons is because he’s in league with the devil. Now, that is some wicked powerful unbelief. To stare the Son of God in the face and say, “You’re the son of Satan.”

So, it’s natural for us to ask, “What’s wrong with the Pharisees?” Why are they like this? I think it’s helpful to start with a particular example. Here I’ll use the account in Matthew’s Gospel of the Pharisees asking Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. You can find this in Matthew 22.

We begin with the Pharisees plotting and scheming against Jesus. They wanna trap him in his words. They’re kind of like the savvy journalist interviewing the politician they don’t like. Just ask the right question, get them to say the wrong thing, and then before you know it that embarrassing soundbite is going to be on the front page of every news site and trending all over twitter. They just need to get him to say something controversial, something that will get people upset. They need the perfect hot button issue. And this is why they decide to ask him about taxes paid to Caesar.

You see, in those days Israel was ruled by the Romans. And the Romans required the Jewish people to pay a tax. Except nobody likes the Romans. Not only are the Romans an unwelcome foreign power telling them how to live, but they’re unbelieving pagans who’ve been known to disrespect the true God. And if that weren’t enough, the Roman coins which they’re supposed to use to pay the tax feature the idolatrous image of the emperor Tiberius along with the blasphemous inscription, “Son of the divine Augustus.” The Romans believed that the emperor was a kind of god on earth. So needless to say, the Romans were quite unpopular with the Jewish people and especially with people like the Pharisees. That’s why they don’t want to pay the tax, since paying the tax is submitting to the idolatrous rule of the Romans. Except not everybody agreed with the Pharisees. There were also people who were supportive of the tax. Obviously, this would be the Romans and anybody who supported the Romans, like the Herodians whom the Pharisees just happen to bring along when they ask Jesus this question. Interesting coincidence.

So the Pharisees present Jesus with this no-win scenario. Either he says, “Yes, pay the tax,” which makes the Pharisees and the people mad. Or he says, “No, don’t pay the tax,” which makes the Herodians and Romans mad.

But he doesn’t fall for the Pharisees’ trick. He sees straight through them. He asks them to bring forward the little coin that’s causing all this trouble. So they bring it to him and he asks them whose image and whose inscription is on the coin. They answer, “Caesar’s.” It’s Caesar’s idolatrous image and Caesar’s blasphemous inscription.

Unfortunately, in the Pharisees’ obsession with figuring out how the Old Testament rules and regulations are supposed to apply to them in their own day, they’ve let themselves become completely focused and utterly fixated on little issues like this little coin. They’ve got their eyes set and their gaze fixed on the image of this Caesar, a foreign king who claims to be a god. And they’re sitting here squabbling, like children fighting on the playground or like adults arguing about politics on Facebook.

Thus, the answer to “what’s wrong with the Pharisees” is that they don’t get it. They miss the point entirely. They can read the entire Old Testament, filled with God’s wonderful promises and might acts in history, mercifully saving his people time and time again, they can read all this and come away fighting over what to do with a little pagan coin. Now, to be fair their question is a legitimate one, but the real problem is that they’ve missed the main thing. And *spoiler alert* Jesus is gonna begin to point them back to the main thing.

So, he answers their question. He tells them to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. It’s as if he’s saying, “Yes, go ahead and pay the tax. After all, it’s Caesar’s coin anyway. Go ahead and give it back to him. After all, why would you Pharisees want to keep an idolatrous and blasphemous coin anyway? I thought you were all about following God’s laws?”

And if Jesus had left it there, the Pharisees could’ve taken his answer and plastered it across the Ancient Jewish equivalent of CNN to the shock of all those who opposed Roman rule. The Ancient twitter outrage would’ve been through the roof. Everybody would be tweeting about how Tiberius Caesar is #NotMyEmperor.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He tells them not only to give back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but also to give back God’s things to God. The implication being that the Pharisees are not doing that. After all, they’ve got their eyes fixed on this coin, on Caesar’s things and all the while it seems that they’ve neglected God’s things, the more important things.

This is where it gets really interesting. But also difficult. What is Jesus pointing them to? What does he mean by giving God’s things to God?

Let’s consider some possible options. We might say that in this context “Caesar’s things” is the coin; it’s money. It’s about paying taxes. So maybe Jesus is talking about money owed to God. Then perhaps, Jesus is saying something like, “sure pay the money you owe to Caesar, but also don’t forget the money you owe to God.” For the Pharisees, that would mean contributing to the temple and the synagogue, for us putting money in the offering plate. Maybe Jesus is pointing the Pharisees and us to what we do with our money. … Well, maybe not. At least I don’t think so. Our relationship with God is a lot bigger than just what we do with our money. You could give all the money in the world to the church and still miss the point just like the Pharisees. That can’t be what Jesus is pointing them to. That’s not the main thing.

So, the answer’s probably bigger. We need a second option. Maybe Jesus is not just talking about giving our money to God, but about worshipping God and being faithful to him. The Pharisees’ problem is that they’re too focused on these political questions. They really need to be in the temple or synagogue. They really need to be off praying or reading their Old Testament, or as they called it back in those days, the Testament. So then, if this is true, Jesus is saying something like, sure don’t neglect your obligation to the government, but also don’t neglect your obligation to God. Make sure your coming to church, reading his word, praying, these sorts of things. That sounds pretty good. But…hold on, the Pharisees did a lot of things wrong, but you can’t fault them for not being religious enough. These guys went to “church” more than anybody. They were praying in public for everybody to see multiple times a day. They had huge parts of the Old Testament memorized and tried to follow what it said to the letter. Nobody was more religious than the Pharisees, but they still don’t get it. And the same is true for us. You can read your bible every day, come to church every Sunday, be constant in prayer and still not get it.

Now, you might say, well there’s a third option. Sure the Pharisees were real good at being religious and following the rules, but they weren’t very good at being good. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites. They were good at following the rules on the outside, but not very good at following the rules in their heart. For example, they may have been real good at not breaking the fifth commandment. They hadn’t murdered a single person, but they uttered all kind of evil against other people and hated people in their hearts. So, maybe Jesus is talking about the kind of deep virtue that the Pharisees so clearly lack. Maybe Jesus is talking about what the oft-quoted Micah 6:8 is talking about, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s about an internal obedience from the heart.

So then, Jesus might be saying something like, “Sure go ahead and follow the laws of society, pay your taxes and things like this, but don’t forget to follow God’s law with your heart. Don’t just ask yourself what’s legal, ask yourself what’s good.” That’s not bad. But good works, while important, are not the main thing. After all, you can be the most upright and virtuous person and still not get it.

And to be honest, if we’re trying to figure out what the Pharisees are missing, we’ll come up short if we keep our eyes on what we need to do. Sure, the Old Testament and the rest of the scriptures are filled with all sorts of instructions about how we should live, what we should do, and the Pharisees are great at paying attention to that. But that’s not the main thing. Like I said before the main point of the Old Testament is not about what we need to do, it’s what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. The tragic irony of this passage is that the Pharisees, these guys who are so zealous for trying to understand the scriptures, have Jesus, the son of God and savior of Israel, right there in front of them and all they can do is try to trap him in a thorny political question. This Jesus is the one whom all of the prophets were pointing to. From Moses to Malachi, it’s all looking forward to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the king and savior of God’s people. They’ve got their eyes fixed on this coin, on the image of this Caesar, this false god or sorts, and if they would just lift their eyes to see the guy standing right in front of them, to see Jesus, they would finally have their focus on the main thing. They would finally get it. This is what Jesus is starting to point them to, himself.

And so you know I’m not making this all up, if we keep reading Matthew 22, more people try to trap Jesus in some other questions, but by the end of the chapter, Jesus traps the Pharisees in his own question: who is the promised Messiah? The Pharisees know that the Old Testament talks about a Messiah, but they don’t understand who this Messiah is supposed to be. He’s clearly the son of King David, but also clearly much more than that. And this is the main thing. This is the most important question of the New Testament and really the most important question of all questions. Certainly more important than questions about Roman tax code. Who is this Jesus? And while the Pharisees don’t know the answer to this question, you do. You know that Jesus is both true God and true Man. You know that Jesus is the promised savior from the Old Testament. And most importantly you know that he is your own savior as well. Now, how do you know this? After all, you’ve never seen Jesus with your own eyes; you’ve never heard Jesus’ words with your own ears like the Pharisees had.

But you have something even better. Even better than having seen Jesus with your own eyes, you have been given the eyes of faith to see Jesus for who he really is. The Pharisees couldn’t see that, but you can. And that makes all the difference in the world.

And this a lot more than just mere knowledge. Since God has given you the gift of faith to see who Jesus really is, you are also united with him. And being united with Christ does not mean that Jesus just lives in your heart to make you feel better when you’re sad. It’s way more than that. It means that you are united with Christ in your baptism, and set apart as God’s holy and forgiven child. You commune with Christ when you eat his body and drink his blood in the sacrament for your forgiveness. Being united to Christ then means that he takes away all of your sins, all of your shame, all of your failure, everything that keeps you up at night, even your own death and he kills it at the cross. It’s all dead and buried. For good. And since you are united with him now, Jesus himself has promised that one day, when he returns he will raise you from the dead and you will in fact finally see him face to face with your own eyes.

This is the main thing. This is what we want to keep our eyes fixed on: Jesus. And what he has done, is doing, and promises to do for us. And while we’re still allowed to ask questions about things like paying taxes to Caesar, we never want to become like the Pharisees and let questions like that take our eyes off of the only one who really matters. Jesus. That’s what “getting it” looks like. Not knowing all the answers, but knowing Jesus.


Image: From Free-Photos CC0

3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the Pharisees?

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