Jesus criticizes the Pharisees
We misunderstand Jesus if we think that he opposes Pharisees in every way. In fact, Jesus sees a legitimate role for the Pharisees in the life of the Jewish nation: the role of teachers for the people in the way of righteousness. Originally the priests fulfilled this role, according to Leviticus 10:10-11:
You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.
The priests, however, had often failed to fulfill this mission. The prophet Azariah confronted King Asa with these words, “The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach, and without the law” (2 Chronicles 15:2-3).
After the exile, the prophet Malachi told the priests:
“[Levi] revered me and stood in awe of my name. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law” (Malachi 2:5-9).
This failure of the priests apparently continued, until at the time of Jesus, their teaching role has passed to the Pharisees. Here’s what Jesus tells the people:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matthew 23:2-3).
God’s purpose for the Pharisees was to teach the people and to set for them an example of how to live out their teaching faithfully. Luke tells us, however: “The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John” (Luke 7:30).
In other words, they had not repented of their sins and received forgiveness in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. This hardness of heart is what makes them oppose Jesus again and again, prompting him to undercut their authority among the people by exposing their hypocrisy.
Distinguishing an important difference
Jesus perceives a disparity between the teaching of the Pharisees and their practice. It is not a gap between the ideals that they espouse and their inability to live up to those ideals, no matter how hard they try. Rather, the distinction had to do with the purposes of their teaching and the true purposes of their practice. Jesus says, “Everything they do is done for people to see” (Matthew 23:5). Their efforts to maintain this discrepancy, but keeping it secret from everyone watching them, is the core reason that the Pharisees are hypocrites.
Are we clueless about making the same mistake?
We often fall short of what we preach in our practice. We teach married couples of the importance of creating and maintaining good communication within the marriage relationship, even as our spouses are disappointed with how we communicate. We uphold the value of controlling the temper but find ourselves too quick to become angry. (Here I could easily multiply the examples from my own teaching career.) But these failures are not typical of what Jesus means when He says that the Pharisees don’t practice what they preach.
Why do we fall short so often?
Our inability to keep perfectly what we advocate is directly related to the absolute nature of many of the biblical admonitions. For instance, Paul commands us: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus…. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, 21-22).
Now, we are sometimes joyful, perhaps even often, but certainly not always. We strive to pray more often, but fail at making our prayer-life continual. We cultivate having a thankful heart, but stumble at being thankful in all circumstances. We may test many things, but stop short of testing everything. This absolute element is present in many other commands that the Lord gives us, such as “Love your enemies” and “Treat others as you want others to treat you.” Consistency continues to be a rare jewel absent from our pockets. Inconsistencies are the pebbles we daily carry around instead.
Constant introspection should be our policy
Our challenge is to examine our motives constantly to ensure that we want what God wants, that we say His words, and that in our practice we follow, however imperfectly, the way of righteousness, not just with our feet, but also with the inclination of our hearts. We fall short for sure, but at least the spirit is willing, though the flesh continues in its weakness.
Want to go deeper?
- The Greek word translated ‘hypocrite’ (hypokritēs) means ‘play-actor.’ The real person behind the mask on stage nearly always lacks the motivations, the beliefs, and the attitudes of the character he or she portrays. Study the contexts in which this word occurs in the New Testament, all of them from the lips of our Savior.
Jesus uses it four times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; and 7:5) and once in the parallel Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:42). Six times He calls the Pharisees hypocrites during His famous denunciation of them (Matthew 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). Other verses mentioning hypocrites include: Matthew 15:7; 22:18; 24:51; Mark 7:6; Luke 12:56; and 13:15. The cognate noun ‘hypocrisy’ occurs in the gospel accounts in Matthew 23:28; Mark 12:15; and Luke 12:1; and outside the gospels in Gal. 2:13 (twice) and 1 Peter 2:1. The adjective ‘hypocritical’ occurs in 1 Tim. 4:2. Paul calls the high priest, “You whitewashed wall” (Acts 23:3), the functional equivalent of ‘hypocrite.’
- Ulrich Wilckens. “hypokrinomai, etc.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 8:560-571.