Accidental Pharisees

Some groups of people seem destined to be at odds with one another forever. Hatfields and McCoys, Yorks and Lancasters, Capulets and Montagues, Trekkies and Warsies, Yankees and Red Sox, elves and dwarves . . . and the list goes on and on. We even see this in the Bible with the Jews and the Samaritans.

Many times, the feuding factions don’t even know why they’re at each other’s throats, or their feud is based on some petty slight. In Romeo and Juliet, we’re never actually told what caused such a prolonged and irreconcilable rift.

Here’s the thing: Feuds like this are usually more about pride than principle. The differences are not irreconcilable; bridges can be mended because usually these different groups are in many ways mirror images of one another. But when we look at the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, we encounter a very different type of feud.

Who Were the Pharisees?

Believe it or not, the Pharisees didn’t start out the way they’re depicted in the New Testament. They actually developed out of the larger Hasidim movement, “a strictly orthodox Jewish sect in the third and second centuries BC that opposed Hellenizing (Greek) influences on their faith,” according to

From this movement came four sects, among them were the Pharisees. The name comes from the word paras, “to divide, separate.” Regarding their name, many believe it was given to them by their rivals—possibly the Sadducees or Essenes—in the same way that the Catholic church coined the then derogatory term “Protestant.”

Who were they separating from, though? Overall, scholars agree that it was separation from the people of the land (Am ha’aretz), from anyone and anything that interfered with their religious duties—tithes, ritual prayers, and ceremonial cleanness—and followed the Mosaic law.

Interestingly though, today, being compared to a Pharisee brings up images of hypocritical, narrow-minded, haters and stone throwers, but in Jesus’ day, it was a compliment. Truthfully, the Pharisees weren’t all bad, nor were they all stone throwing elitists. As Larry Osborne points out, “They were zealous for God, completely committed to their faith. They were theologically astute, masters of the biblical texts . . . Their embrace of spiritual disciplines was second to none . . . The Pharisees were held in such high regard that both Jesus and the apostle Paul played the Pharisee card when they wanted to illustrate the highest levels of spiritual commitment. They knew their audience would be impressed.”

You could argue they had the right idea, but somewhere throughout the years, they lost themselves. They forgot what it was all about. Their passion was in the right place, but their hearts were not.

A Conflict of Principle

By Jesus’ time, most Pharisees had become entitled, arrogant, and self-righteous. They’d lost all semblances of mercy, compassion, and grace. They put practices over people, traditions over tenderheartedness, customs over compassion, and service over servanthood. They considered themselves better, holier, and closer to God than the common sinner because of their performance. Sadly, this couldn’t have been further from the truth, and it was this attitude and puffed up sense of superiority that led to their conflict with Christ.

The religious leaders knew the letter of the law, but they were clueless about the heart of the law. They kept all the technical aspects, but failed to live with love. You see, as men with great knowledge of Scripture, they should have been amongst the people, teaching them, discipling them, and leading them. They should have been elevating their brothers and sisters, building them up, being a light for those in darkness. Instead, they elevated themselves at the expense of their brothers and sisters, they tore them down, and did nothing but push people further into darkness through their merciless judgment and condemnation.

Jesus, on the other hand, “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NIV), “to proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18 NIV).

Our Savior ate with sinners and tax collectors. He showed mercy to the adulteress, Samaritan, and criminal. He defended the weak, gave the rejects a place to belong, forgave the sinner, and healed the sick outcasts. He didn’t ignore the law, instead He brought the law full circle by showing the world the true heart of God’s commands (Matthew 9:13, 22:37–40; Luke 10:25–37).

Pride and compassion cannot coexist, they work against each other.

But these keepers of the law felt threatened by Jesus, by His authority, power, message, and methods. They didn’t understand His words or His ways. Their way of life was challenged, their authority was questioned, and their self-righteousness and sinful hypocrisy was exposed. They were brought back down to everyone else’s level . . . and they didn’t like it!

Like the fictional feud of the Capulets and Montagues, their conflict with Jesus was a matter of pride. And unfortunately, many of us fail to grasp how dangerous pride is. Osborne wrote, “There are a lot of things that can anger God. Few people would guess that looking down on others would be at the top of the list. Yet it is . . . I’ve also noticed something strange about this sin that God hates most. It’s usually found among people who think they love God most. Spiritual arrogance is . . . a front-of-the-line sin. So much so that sometimes I think of it as an occupational hazard of zealous faith, serious discipleship, and biblical scholarship.”

While their conflict with Jesus was a matter of pride, Jesus’ conflict with them was a matter of principle VERSUS pride! They threw stones at people for sins they themselves were guilty of (John 8:1–11), whereas Jesus, who was sinless and perfect, offered forgiveness, redemption, and restoration.

Pride and compassion cannot coexist, they work against each other. One is born out of selfish ambition and vain conceit, the other out of humility. It’s no small disagreement like the dwarves and elves, folks. It’s irreconcilable, diametrically opposed, polar opposite, irresistible force vs. immovable object type stuff we’re dealing with here! This is why Jesus and the religious elite clashed.

The Church: Accidental Pharisees

Why are we talking about such an ancient conflict that has no impact on us here and now? Because it does! My friends, the Church is full of accidental Pharisees, and at one time or another, you and I have fallen victim to it. We’ve put on the robes and cast the judgment, we’ve walked around with stones at the ready . . . we’ve probably even thrown a few.

In his book, Larry Osborne states, “No one starts out with the desire to become a Pharisee . . . But the truth is that accidental Pharisees are made up of people just like you and me, people who love God, love the Scriptures, and are trying their best to live by them. The thing to note about accidental Pharisees is just that. They’re accidental. They’re like dinner at Denny’s. No one plans to go there. You just end up there.”

If you doubt my assertion, believe that could never be you, evaluate yourself today. Here are a few examples for you to chew on—confession: I’m absolutely guilty of these, so please don’t think I’m singling anyone out!

  • Think about your mindset at church for a moment. Have you ever thought: I do not like the message today; too many points, too many personal stories, not enough Jesus! Or Jesus never did alter calls or had background music in a dark lit room. This church is just becoming so worldly!

  • Think about your evaluation of other churches: That church is so seeker-sensitive. They only care about production. Or I don’t like how that pastor wears skinny jeans.

  • How about your thoughts about and interactions with other believers: He has a tattoo. That’s just so gross and unbiblical. I could never do that. Doesn’t he know what it says in Leviticus? Or How could she wear that? Doesn’t she know she’s probably causing men to stumble? Or Bless their hearts, they just seem to be drifting in their walk. Or “So, I saw your Instagram posts last night from the bar . . . Looks like you were having fun, huh?”

I could go on and on and on, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

The Point

So, what am I getting at? Am I telling you to tolerate and condone things you believe are wrong? That discernment of wrongdoing or sin is wrong? That we should be okay with everything everyone does? Am I saying it’s wrong to come to a fellow disciple and confront them on sin? No. If you know me at all, you know just how zealous and passionate I am for the Word, for discipleship, and for Christians to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NIV).

Here’s what I’m saying: Don’t let your discernment turn into disgust and disdain for people. Don’t let your judgment turn into condemnation, or you’ll end up in a dangerous place. Don’t play the comparison game, thinking yourself better and holier than another brother. Instead, “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5 NIV).

When we don’t check ourselves on this, we could end up in a place of pride. At that point, we have elevated ourselves above the people of the land, and being right may become more important than showing compassion, grace, and love. And instead of becoming more like Jesus, which is our ultimate goal as Christ-followers, we’ll end up becoming more like those with whom He clashed.

So dear friends, let’s commit together today to being “kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10 NKJV emphasis added). Let’s commit to “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 NIV). In humility, may we “value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3–4 NIV)

Let’s do consistent inventory of our hearts for any trace of legalism and cast it aside in favor of humility and compassion. Let’s embrace the diversity of our brothers and sisters and celebrate them for whom Christ is transforming them into. Instead of elevating ourselves above someone, let’s get in the trenches with them and help our brothers or sisters carry their burdens and overcome their struggles. Don’t ignore sin or your Holy Spirit convictions; have the hard conversations, but do so speaking the truth in love as you “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NIV).

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.