You don’t have to study the Gospels too closely to see the animosity between Jesus and the first-century religious establishment. Quite often, this friction became more apparent between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Lord often focused on the Pharisees as an example of everything that wasn’t working in the current structure.
Most of these behaviors recur in the lives of spiritually minded people. So we must pay attention to Jesus’s criticisms and search our hearts for the same attitudes. Here are five things that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees:
1. They overburdened people
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).
Jesus famously remarked that His yoke was easy and His burden was light (Matthew 11:30). The Pharisees, on the other hand, placed high expectations on people. In their attempts to apply God’s law to their world, they were creating more rules. People who wanted to be close to God were under a lot of pressure to follow all sorts of new expectations.
For instance, the command to follow the Sabbath and keep it holy had morphed into an extremely rigid list of rules around the Sabbath. In the Mishnah (a collection of oral traditions), there were 39 forbidden labors on the Sabbath, which included: making two loops, weaving two threads, tying or untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, writing two letters, extinguishing or lighting a flame.
2. They were motivated by attention
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others” (Matthew 23:5-7).
The Sermon on the Mount seems to address the culture the Pharisees had helped foster. Jesus discussed using devotional behavior (fasting, praying) to demonstrate one’s piety to others. Instead of focusing on shepherding the people of Israel, many of the Pharisees simply concentrated on being honored and having others defer to them.
To counteract this behavior, Jesus repeatedly taught that excellent behavior done in secret would be rewarded in secret.
3. They made it hard to enter God’s kingdom
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).
Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’s time removed themselves from problematic people. They had a long list of people unworthy of their presence: tax collectors, Samaritans, drunks, prostitutes, etc. Their separatist mentality isolated them from the people who needed God the most.
Jesus said that it was the sick who were most in need of a physician (Mark 2:17), and his behavior demonstrated this truth. He didn’t avoid sinners; He spent time with them, and they were drawn to Him.
4. They neglected mercy, justice, and faithfulness
“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” (Mathew 23:23-24).
When it came to following the rules, the Pharisees excelled. They had it down to a science. But they ignored the importance of demonstrating mercy, seeking justice, and practicing faithfulness. The rules are easy to follow, but it’s a lot easier to ignore opportunities to respond to injustice or show compassion.
It’s just as important to God that we take advantage of moments when people need to see the kingdom in action, including helping people in need.
5. They focused entirely on external righteousness
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26).
Jesus was focused on the Pharisees here because they were responsible for modeling godly behavior to Israel, but we must recognize that this is a universal problem. We all tend to focus on what others can see while avoiding the deep work that remains hidden from others.
It’s easy to ignore the attitudes and behaviors that others can’t see. In fact, we often end up indulging in those impulses in secret. But as we see from Jesus’s words to the Pharisees, He’s paying attention.
Righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this startling statement:
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The Jews who heard Him make such a statement would have wondered if that was even possible. If that’s something you wonder, too, check out “How Can Our Righteousness Surpass the Pharisees’?” This post will help you better understand the life Jesus calls us to.