Pharisees, Publicans, and Sinners…..Oh My!

March 4, 2010

There is no mention of the sect of the Pharisees in the Bible before Matthew’s gospel. History records that the Pharisees emerged after the Babylonian captivity of 597 B.C. as a rallying point for the Israelites, to insure that they would never again find themselves in a similar situation. The Pharisees became the “watch dogs” of Judaism, the Jesuits of Jewish society. The children of Israel had lost much in the Babylonian captivity, and the Pharisees made it their job, and went to great lengths, to see to it that nothing like that ever happened again. At first their intent may have been honorable but it evolved into something quite cruel and sinister.

The Pharisees saw to it that the people stayed true to the law of Moses. To help with that, they developed a system of behavioral codes and traditions that were strictly enforced. The ultimate end, sadly, was that their traditions began to take precedence over the law of Moses itself. They even got to the place that they believed and promulgated that the law of Moses could not be understood without knowledge of their traditions.

The truth of the matter is that this same pattern can be seen throughout history. In the centuries that followed the early church and the ministry of Paul, the church of Rome had evolved to where not only could the common person not understand the Scriptures for themselves, but they had gotten to the place where the common person was even barred from having the Scriptures (in their possession or in their own language), from teaching the Scriptures, and from direct fellowship with God. The understanding and teaching of the Scriptures was reserved for a priesthood, and all had to go through a priest to receive God’s forgiveness and His blessings, as well as a knowledge of God (according to Roman church doctrine of course). Man’s point of contact with God, His written Word, was replaced by a “representative,” the top representative being called the “vicar of Christ.” The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, arose as the enforcers of Roman church tradition and teaching. Human frailty, intellect, and the natural desire to identify with a group often causes men and women to live in fear, and wrongly base their approval before God, or their fellowship with God, on the approval of, or their fellowship with, a particular group, just as was the case in Jewish society in Jesus’ day. People lived in fear of the Pharisees, more than the fear of God. Enforcers always emerge.

A man that had been born blind was ministered to and healed by Jesus Christ. After interrogation by the family’s skeptical neighbors, he was brought before the Pharisees, the religious leaders. The Pharisees concluded that whoever had healed the man could not possibly have been of God because they had done it on the wrong day of the week, the Sabbath day.

John 9:13-16
“They brought to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind. And it was the Sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes. Then again the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see. Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day. Others said, how can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them.”

The Pharisees had gotten to the place, like it declares in Ezekiel 12, that even though they had “eyes to see,” they could not see, and even though they had “ears to hear,” they could not hear (God’s Word). They couldn’t get past their traditions and did not recognize the move of the spirit of God in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, who was bringing deliverance to men and women all around them. These were sincere, devout, intelligent men, who were very knowledgeable of the law of Moses, but they couldn’t get past their own intellect to see the truth of God. The situation degraded so far that people became more afraid of the judgment of the Pharisees then they were of the judgment of God.

John 9:17-23
“They say unto the blind man again, what sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thine eyes? He said, He is a prophet. But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind, and received his sight, until they called the parents of him that had received his sight. And they asked them, saying, is this your son, who ye say was born blind? How then doth he now see? His parents answered them and said, We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: But by what means he now seeth, we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not: he is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself. These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. Therefore said his parents, He is of age; ask him.”

This man had been born blind and Jesus Christ had healed him. You would think that his parents, of all people, would have had the courage to stand up for their son and the man who healed him, but fear of being ostracized kept them from doing so. Fear always keeps people from standing up. The truth of the matter is that nothing much has changed.

The Pharisees elevated their writings and traditions above the revelation of God’s Word, thereby making the Word of God of none effect.

Matthew 15:1-9
“Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

To elevate anything above the Word of God makes the Word of none effect in the lives of those who do. No matter how sincere, or intelligent, or devout. The Pharisees were sincere. They were devout. They were the intellectuals of their day. They worshipped God, but Jesus Christ aligned their worship to that which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying that it was “vain” worship. It was empty, void, and to no purpose, regardless of how clean, or sincere, or religious it looked. They ended up enslaving people rather than helping them. One of my mentors would say, “You can write apple sauce on the outside of the jar, but it doesn’t change the pickles on the inside.” Sincerity is never a guarantee for truth or authenticity.

The Pharisees also vilified Jesus Christ for his movement of God’s Word and his ministering to and healing of those in need, because he did it without their blessing, their traditions, and among the wrong group of people – publicans and sinners. They were especially indignant that Jesus Christ ate with these people.

Matthew 9:10-13
“And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

To those of us living in the culture of the Americas these verses may not mean very much, but to cultures elsewhere around the globe, especially the Near and Middle East, they are very significant because the food they ate would have been salted. In the Bible, eating salt with someone represented an irrevocable and binding covenant between the two parties, representing their love, support, and protection for one another. To this day, in many cultures and nations around the globe, when dignitaries or government leaders meet, they oftentimes partake in what is known as the Ceremony of Bread and Salt. This ceremony is practiced in Slavic nations, as well as Russia, and many European and Asiatic cultures.

I know of Christians who say that they do not fellowship or “hang-out” with people outside of their church. Jesus Christ however set the example for how to move the knowledge of God’s Word, and minister to the dieing, bringing them deliverance and healing. He moved among and wholly dedicated himself to “publicans and sinners,” even to the end of eating salt with them, and I love him for that. How are we to bring the knowledge of God’s Word to people if we are not out among them, if we sit in our homes, or offices, or churches, only fellowshipping with “the righteous,” waiting for people to come to the altar of our knowledge? Jesus Christ said that he came not “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” and he admonished the Pharisees, saying, “go ye and learn what that meaneth.”

Perhaps the words of N.T. Wright regarding the “if ye have love one to another” of John 13:35 are appropriate: “We are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other down the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon of our own various cultures. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it. We have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are.”

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2 Responses to “Pharisees, Publicans, and Sinners…..Oh My!”

  1. gualetar said

    The subject is fully clear but why does the text lack clarity? But in general your blog is great.

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