I've said many times that there was only one groups of people that drove Jesus crazy. And it wasn't the Romans who killed him, or the scribes and lawyers who antagonized him. It was the Pharisees.
The Ps were not a bad lot overall, and in spite of the acres of parchment devoted to the them in the Gospels. They were basically a group of lay people -- no rabbis or priests among them -- who took it upon themselves to put a shine on the simple Judaism of the peasants. They were day-to-day chiders and scolds, reminding the people to tithe, to wash and to mind the Ps and Qs of the Torah. Think of them as the grammar police of daily Jewish life -- tsk-tsking over the religious equivalents of misplaced apostrophes, dangling modifiers and the misuse to-two-too.
Jesus went off on them as legalizers, of course -- as those who would "pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb" -- spreading holiness mindlessly into the very nooks and crannies of daily life. But he really laid into them as hypocrites, who were clean on the outside but dirty on the inside. Three devastating quotes from Luke 11: "Inside you are filled with plunder and evil,"
over which people unknowingly walk.”
That's a heaping helping of hostility!
But what was the issue? And why was Jesus so insistent that the community's worst sinners -- tax collectors and prostitutes (Matt 21:31) -- would enter the Kingdom before they will?
You can get an insight from our contemporary religious communities, my own included. For small "p" pharisees are legion.
Wherever there are people overly concerned about those who get to church late, or don't have their prayers memorized, or wear dirty clothes, or don't put enough in the collection basket, or don't bring a pie to the bake sale -- there you have pharisees. Wherever there are those who manipulate the community's decisions with their professional status, seniority or backroom dealing, their you have pharisees. Where you have those unable to see how their cliques and factions are dividing the community, or who rig elections and open discussions to get their own way -- there you have pharisees.
The worst part of today's phariseeism is not hypocrisy in the way we understand the term -- a conscious choice to act outwardly in opposition to one's inner reality. It's the sheer obliviousness of pharisees that there
a difference! Latter day pharisees cannot see their interior evil. They don't see that they act against the wishes of the community. Indeed they think that they are righteous, and that they represent the community. It's their blindness to their own evil -- not the fact of their evil -- that shunts them to the back of the line into the Kingdom. Prostitutes and tax collectors may do plenty of bad things. But at least they know it. They have come face to face with their own evil, and have made it part of their self image. People like that are ripe for a repentance; they know their own sin and hate it, at least on some level. And though repentance is the key to enter the Kingdom, pharisees can't repent, as they can't see their own sin. Dragging them to that realization is tough, tough work. No wonder that Jesus used his strongest language to shake them out of their complacency and self-righteousness. I'd like to think that Jesus was not condemning and discarding them, but trying to pierce through their tough skins to reach the sinner beneath the armor.
But pharisees are a tough and entrenched bunch. They run our church councils, hold up the pillars of our churches, donate lavishly and conspire (over coffee cake and salad) to outmaneuver threats to their leadership. Getting them to realize how they exclude new people and new ideas is long, hard, punishing work.
Even the Messiah thought so.