The Pharisee and the Publican by John Everett Millais, published 1864, from “Illustrations to ‘The parables of our Lord'”

“Hypocrites! Whited sepulchers! Generation of vipers!” With these stinging words, Jesus rebuked the sanctimonious attitude of the Pharisees. And they repeatedly questioned his religious practices, attempted to thwart his mission, and conspired to do away with him. It would be easy for Christians just to label them as the villains of Jesus’ story and simply write them off. But wouldn’t that be a big mistake? After all, there was good in them, as Jesus himself well knew, and there’s a lot we can learn through them if we understand this.

Started with good intentions
To begin with, the founders of their sect, who lived some 200 years before Jesus’ time, had the best of intentions: obedience to God through steadfast adherence to the law (Torah) of Moses. To achieve this, they devoted themselves to in-depth study of the Scriptures. Over time, however, a huge number of traditions evolved from their efforts—traditions that went way beyond the Torah in dictating what was and was not permissible in every area of daily life from food consumption to keeping the Sabbath. It was those petty traditional rules, not the Torah, that Jesus objected to and tended to disregard. By his time those rules had developed into a stranglehold on the practice of the Jewish faith, making complex demands that were all but impossible to fulfill consistently. Referring to these rules, Jesus said, “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4.) So much for the Pharisees’ initial good intentions.

How they got off course
Worse still, by the first century these absurdly demanding rules had lured the Pharisees into self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and scorn for others. Since their rules supposedly defined what a righteous man should look like, the Pharisees prided themselves on at least the appearance of observing them and loved the recognition they received for doing so. They became more concerned with looking good then with actually being good. Furthermore, they tended to feel smugly superior to others who were less scrupulously observant of religious traditions than they were. Jesus portrayed their smug attitude in his parable of the Pharisee and the publican, in which the former boasts of his fasting and tithing, which exceed the requirements of the law, and disdains the publican, whose prayer, by contrast, is one of sincere, meek repentance.

How Jesus treated them
Jesus had often seen the Pharisees display this self-righteous disdain toward him, as, for instance, when he healed on the Sabbath or dined with “publicans and sinners” or when his disciples ate without first washing their hands, a practice demanded solely by Pharisaic traditions. Yet Jesus didn’t return their disdain. On several occasions he dined at the home of a Pharisee, which involved sharing the intimacy of table fellowship. On one occasion when a group of Pharisees came to hear him teach, “the power of the Lord was present to heal them” (Luke 5:17.) Even Jesus’ stern rebukes were given in response to the Pharisees’ spiritual need. He must have recognized their earnest desire for righteousness and deplored its sorry drift into the self-righteousness which was cutting them off from the blessings of heaven.

How some of them supported him
And some of the Pharisees responded positively to his spiritual leadership. Individuals such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea actually became his followers. Though Nicodemus at first came to him in secret, he later spoke out courageously on Jesus’ behalf during a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council (John 7: 50,51.) And after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea showed great courage and love in openly taking Jesus’ body from the cross and giving him a proper burial in a fine new tomb (John 19:38-40.) Yes, it was two Pharisees who made this essential provision for the Master!

According to The Acts of the Apostles, Pharisees continued to be among Jesus’ followers after his resurrection and ascension. There we read of “certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed” (Acts 15:5.) The most significant of these was, of course, Saul of Tarsus, who expanded the outreach of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and to Gentiles as well as to Jews. Does the fact that he was a Pharisee make him seem an unlikely candidate for the role of Christian apostle? Or had his training as a Pharisee actually helped prepare him for the call? Was his mistaken persecution of Christian “heretics” motivated by the same eagerness to serve the Lord that later impelled him to support their cause once he’d caught a glimpse of its Founder’s vision?

What we can learn through them
Clearly, dismissing the Pharisees as “the bad guys” doesn’t do justice to that vision. There were two brothers in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and they both needed healing. After all, Jesus didn’t end the story with the prodigal’s homecoming, but with the Father’s loving appeal to his self-righteous older son. Wasn’t Jesus indicating that the embrace of our heavenly Father is wide enough to include both the sinner and the self-satisfied Pharisee? Didn’t he expect our embrace to include both, too? Don’t folks show up in our church pews who tend to be self-satisfied and critical of others? Can we love them as much as we love repentant sinners?

And most important of all, are we meek and honest enough to catch ourselves when we start going down that Pharisee path? It’s a dangerous one with a big roadblock marked “I”! We can be grateful that Jesus, with some help from the Pharisees, made that roadblock very clear. After all, he did it for our benefit.