If Jesus’ story was a Western, the Pharisees would be wearing black hats. They were ancient Palestine’s hard-nosed religious crew. From the earliest lines of Mark’s Gospel, we see their squinting gaze appraising Jesus, and constantly finding fault with the world’s most loving Man: “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw [Jesus] eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Mark 2:16).
And if His actions riled them, Jesus’ words positively set their trigger fingers itching. They hated the way Jesus criticised their behaviour, and most of all the authority He claimed to do so. When Jesus told them He was God in the flesh their clawed hands were ready to murder Him in the middle of their holiest temple (see John 8).
Is it any wonder then that the term “Pharisee” has passed into modern English as a synonym for hypocrite? In fact, the term has often been applied to Christians themselves, who’ve departed from the teachings of Jesus to embrace twisted forms of puritanism—something many of us have a clear picture of, thanks to The Simpsons. The Reverend Lovejoy and his wife Helen are the poster couple for modern-day Pharisaism. Helen in particular is a gossipy woman who’s prepared to protest Michelangelo’s David:
“It’s filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body which, practical as they may be, are evil.”
But while the world laughs—and often at Christianity’s expense—most of us are missing that Pharisees come in an altogether different shape today.
A new era
I’m not the first writer to observe that we are living in a post-Christian society. Aussies, Kiwis and others have been reacting against the heritage that undergirds many of our institutions and values for decades now. In fact, theologian John McClean suggests we’ve moved on even from post-Christian: “Most of the opinion leaders and culture shapers in the West are not reacting against a culture which has been shaped by Christianity; they, largely, know nothing about the Christian past. Our society, at least on cultural leading edges, is post-post-Christian.”1
If there is a defining worldview now, it is secularism—the pursuit of a utopian society, completely free of religious restrictions of any kind. Paradoxically, it’s also a society with little meaning, because there can be no truths to discover in a world where every viewpoint is accorded equal status.
Unless, of course, it is tolerance. Now tolerance is an important value, but when it’s elevated to the level of a virtue—something that is true and appropriate in every circumstance—then we shouldn’t be surprised when we see new Pharisees arise.
If a hippie from the last century were to step out of a time machine today, they’d find remarkably little to protest. The liberal values that occupied the fringes in the 1960s have now moved to the centre of social thinking. In many cases, this hasn’t been a bad thing; it’s given rise to a range of helpful revolutions, from fairer pay for women to better treatment of minorities and migrant groups. Yet as they’ve sought to defend this new centre, the champions of liberalism have taken on a puritanical tone more familiar to religion than politics. As John Mark Comer from the podcast This Cultural Moment describes it, “It’s judgemental, it’s angry, it’s self-righteous, it’s puritanical. If you step out of line, if you say the wrong thing, if you believe the wrong thing, you’re just jumped on.”
These self-appointed guardians of individual rights prune back Christmas decorations to avoid giving offence. They condemn schools that question a student’s right to choose their gender. They decry politicians who profess mainstream faiths, while ensuring Aboriginal smoking ceremonies are mandatory at government events. They can be every bit as hypocritical as Helen Lovejoy in the promotion of their worldview, and just as hurtful towards those who resist it. They have become the Pharisees of our post-Christian culture.
Take political correctness for example. The small town church I grew up in gave me some early experience of how modern-day Pharisees work with words. They never lacked a censor for what could and couldn’t be said, or even what music was considered free of “satanic African drumbeats”. Those examples may sound ridiculous today, but representatives of our current liberal culture are still using the same kinds of censorship and shame to define acceptable behaviour.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day referred to this Man who healed the sick and raised the dead as demon possessed (John 8:52). Similarly today, those who appeal to “free speech” for their right to oppose things like same-sex marriage are often accused of “hate speech”. And this labelling doesn’t even have to make sense. In a recent Munk Debate on political correctness, controversial Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson argued that without free speech there can be no true thought. His opponent, Professor Michael Dyson, responded by calling him “a mean, mad white man”. The irony is that Dyson is African-American. One can only wonder what the response would have been if Peterson had referred to him as “a mean, mad black man”.
American satirist George Carlin describes political correctness as “fascism masquerading as manners”. “It presents itself as fairness yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language. . . . [but] I’m not sure silencing people, or forcing them to alter their speech, is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper.”2
And this is the heart of the Pharisee’s problem, then and now.
Jesus referred to the Pharisees of His time—those who appeared to be the most righteous members of their society—as, “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead” (Matthew 23:27, 28). The same can be said of today’s Pharisees. Political correctness is a dress-up game we play to present a pleasing exterior, while avoiding a heart-deep problem. We value things like love, compassion and tolerance, but we refuse to acknowledge that unfettered freedom to do whatever we want will produce the exact opposite.
But then Pharisees have always had it in for Jesus, then and now. Whether hailing from the religious right or the secular left, the Pharisee’s strident objection to the teachings of Christianity is based on the belief that he or she is capable of making it to heaven singlehanded. The promise today might be a secular paradise of tolerance and harmony, but getting there still rests on humans pulling together to make that vision come true, with God firmly on the sidelines.
Three mistakes, One solution
So what would Jesus say to our modern-day Pharisees? I think He would begin now, as before, by pointing out that their hopes are built on three mistakes.
First, they need to realise their “good” is not good enough. The original Pharisees were publicly acknowledged as the experts on right living, but their private lives were infested with all sorts of distressing problems—an unhealthy obsession with money, neglect of parents, and most of all, an overweening pride in their accomplishments. Jesus solemnly warned: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Second, Jesus would challenge today’s Pharisees’ assumption that improving a person’s behaviour will produce an improved person. But Jesus said concentrating on outward actions just produces perfect play- actors: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25,26).
Finally, Jesus warns Pharisees against hypocrisy: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3–5).
The problems the original Pharisees were spotting weren’t meaningless, any more than the ones our modern-day Pharisees are highlighting. Yet they were being blown out of all proportion compared to more serious issues—“justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). These Pharisees were disconnected from God and their ethics had become nitpicking and distorted. As then, so now: how can anyone expect to be able to judge human issues rightly if they’re ignoring the One we draw our concept of righteousness from?
But despite His unflinching critique of hypocrisy and self- righteousness, Jesus is not simply consigning Pharisees to eternal damnation. No, as always, He’s calling them—calling us?—to a new perspective and a fresh start. It’s not too late for a change.
Mark Hadley is a film critic and cultural commentator. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
1. J. McClean, Are We Now In a Post-Post Christian Pagan Australia?, https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/now-post-post-christian-pagan-australia/
2. G. Carlin, https://snooze2awaken.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/george-carlin-political-correctness-is-fascism-pretending-to-be-manners/