Christian Pharisees

Image by Steven Shi from Pixabay


Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

These days, Pharisees get a lot of bad press, at least in Christian circles. Before we look at the parables in Luke, we need to understand why the Pharisees were so often at odds with Jesus.

There are only three historical sources of information about the group; the New Testament, Josephus, and the teachings of the Rabbis. The NT, you may have noticed, is negative. Josephus was himself a believer after the Pharisees. He was a Jewish historian who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He also mentioned both John the Baptizer and Jesus, the only non-Biblical source in the First Century to do so.

While the NT is suspect because of its negative comments about Pharisees, the Rabbis are suspect because they were mostly followers of the Pharisees. What we historians must do is find points of agreement among the sources and treat the disagreements carefully. As it happens, the disagreements are mostly in attitude—like Pharisees or not like Pharisees.

While there are many questions about them, the reports agree that the Pharisees were well versed in the Teachings of God; they took their religion seriously; they tithed; they prized ritual cleanliness; while many were wealthy, they lived a simple lifestyle; they were respected and looked up to by the common people. They disagreed with the Sadducees—most of whom were priests—on two key issues, they believed in life after death, and they believed everyone was free to make choices, thus rejecting predestination.

Notice how much of this description matches what we could list about Jesus. Why then was he so often at odds with them?

These two parables help answer that question. In the first verse of today’s reading, we see, Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear JesusNIV While we understand this to be an exaggeration, the Gospels do make clear that crowds of people formed wherever Jesus was teaching. It would be easy to say the Pharisees were jealous of Jesus, but that is far too simplistic.

In verse two, we read, And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” ESV Remember that the Pharisees were big on ritual purity. Maintaining that purity requires absolute avoidance of impure people. A Pharisee would never walk down Butcher’s Street in any town for fear of being splattered with blood. He would never talk with a woman outside his home. He would never walk with his wife in public. He would avoid conversation with a non-Jew, and then only at a safe distance. He would never allow a non-Jew to touch him. You get the picture.

It’s no wonder they were so upset to see Jesus in action. It is very much like American churches a century ago which condemned Jazz, dancing, liquor, eating where liquor was served, playing pool, un-chaperoned inter-gender get-togethers, even going to the movies. Much of the list is still in effect in some more conservative segments of our churches. The purpose was to avoid sin, just like the Pharisees.

Jesus spent much of his time with sinners. I think it is important for us to learn how he was able to do that without becoming a sinner.

Wouldn’t any man among you who owned a hundred sheep, and lost one of them, leave the ninety-nine to themselves in the open, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? Phillips The theme of the lost sheep, is familiar to everyone in Galilee and Judea. It was repeated in the OT numerous times. God is pictured searching for the lost sheep called Israel. No matter how many times Israel strayed, Israel’s Father searched for them and forgave them.

Consider the nature of sheep. They are driven by two powerful instincts, to be in the herd and to eat the choice grass. When one spots a tempting patch a little away from the herd, he forgets the herd and goes for the grass, soon to be lost. Realizing his lostness, he begins to bleat, listening for the sound of the herd or the shepherd.

Consider the shepherd. He has a hundred charges to keep track of, and while he knows each by sight, they do tend to look much alike. If he is busy leading a few back on one side of the herd and the tempted one wanders off, the shepherd must find him. First, he will call for the lost one by name; then he will trot the perimeter without losing sight of the 99. Only when all else fails will he put the 99 in danger, but he will search for the lost one.

It is no surprise that these two parables have the same message. Another example: what woman, if she has ten drachmas and loses one of these valuable coins, won’t light a lamp, sweep the house and search all over until she finds it? CJB Our first image is of our own houses where finding a dime—slightly larger than a drachma—would be an interesting search, but not hopeless.

Allow me to quote from the ESV Archaeology Study Bible footnote on this story. The floor of a village home around the Sea of Galilee was not covered with a flat, clean surface but rather composed of small rocks or packed earth. Because the common building material in the area was black basaltic rock, it was easy to lose small, thin coins in a house’s crack and crevices and difficult to sweep the house to find anything, even with the help of a lamp. As a result, Archaeologists have recovered hundreds of coins in the excavations of ancient homes, especially in the region of the Sea of Galilee. By the way, the drachma was roughly equal to the Roman denarius, each considered to be a day’s wage for working people.

The point of the two stories is that followers of Jesus are to search for the lost. The lost are people who do not accept God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus gave us the Good News to share with them. What is the Good News? God loves us, and God forgives us our sins.

If you are one of the 99, look for the lost one. If you don’t know God’s love, find someone who can share it with you.

Not every Christian can do it because too many of us don’t want to hang out with sinners and become contaminated. There really are Christian Pharisees.


Read my earlier comments on this theme here, and here.


Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s