Skip to content

The Leaven of the Pharisees

June 22, 2017

The Pharisees are both rather boring and rather important characters for most readers of the gospel. Boring because they are relentlessly predictable – they hate everything Jesus does. Important because the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is a foundational story for Protestantism and stands as the example of the divergence between the old way (Law) and the new way (grace). While there are plenty of critics of this simple version of the story there are also plenty of adherents. After all, the Pharisees cite the Law again and again in their confrontations with Jesus. Their conflicts are sparked by minor points of the Law – rules about washing, rules about eating, rules about which specific actions constitute work on the Sabbath. However, the test case for this version of events seems to be missing.

If, as a scientist, I wanted to set up a situation in which we formally tested the hypothesis that Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees was driven by their adherence to the Law instead of grace I would want to set up a situation in which Jesus would engage in a discussion with a Pharisee who followed Torah extremely well – one who not only followed the hand-washing rules, the food-rules, and the Sabbath regulations but one who loved his neighbor, gave to the poor, and cared for the widow and the sojourner in the land. I would want to do this because any other case allows the possibility that Jesus is unhappy about how the Pharisees interpret or follow the Law; that he takes issue with the manner of their Torah-following and not that it exists. What we see instead of this hypothetical Pharisee points in a different direction.

In the beginning of Luke 12 Jesus has just finished delivering woes to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. As thousands gather to hear him speak he turns to his disciples and says, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” Left by itself a number of modern readers would probably assume that the leaven of the Pharisees is legalism, but Jesus goes on to define it – “which is hypocrisy.”

The woes themselves are also telling. The Pharisees receive three woes. First, because they tithe off every small thing in their spice cabinet but neglect justice and the love of God. “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the former.” Second, the Pharisees love their social position and the advantages that come with it. Third, (confusingly) the Pharisees are “like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it”.

The first woe is the only one that even mentions the Law. The Pharisees are here assiduously following the tithing rules with their foodstuffs, tithing even the flavoring for their food (which Jesus seems to agree is a good thing for them to be doing). But this is, apparently, not because the Pharisees follow Torah with the same zeal. Instead, they have neglected the greater matters of Torah to follow the minor details.

It is easy to think that anyone who would weigh out their mint so that they could tithe a tenth of it is a person very serious about Torah. However, it is much easier to weigh out mint than it is to change your heart. Moreover, it is easy to see if someone is tithing their mint but much more open to debate whether someone loves God. Jesus seems to be complaining that the Pharisees followed picky, but ultimately straightforward, rules without following general, but much harder, rules. (Indeed, Jesus’ opening statement ties these ideas together. “Tithe the things that are within.”)

This ties directly into the second complaint: the Pharisees like, and exploit, their social position. Needless to say, the things the Pharisees seem to be doing (and enforcing) are laws that are relatively clear-cut. The things the Pharisees do are also probably things that set them apart. Can a poor person afford the time to carefully inventory all their food and tithe separately off of everything? Can they afford to fetch water for washing before every meal (especially since the Pharisees may have practiced multiple washings)? The people of the day may have felt that these were all good things but they were also logistically hard to do for many people. These people might have wished to live a life where they could do all of these things but felt unable to (like modern-day people who say, “One day when I don’t work three jobs to keep my kids fed I’ll go to church regularly”). Sabbath-keeping, another focus of the Pharisees’ conflicts with Jesus, marked out a line between Jews and Gentiles. Much of what the Pharisees observed best seems to have been laws that highlighted how special they were.

The standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees here is not one between Law (Torah) and grace but a prophetic-style complaint against those who do not follow through on their beliefs. I believe that Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees here runs as follows:

  1. The Pharisees are not following the main points of Torah, which are “justice and the love of God”. The lack of justice is a common theme of the prophets (who, we learn in Luke 11:47, are revered by Jesus’ audience) and love of God is the first part of the summary of the Torah offered by the expert in the law in Luke 10:27 (the parable of the Good Samaritan). I believe everyone in the dispute would agree that justice and the love of God were higher values than hand-washing (which kicks off the dispute) or tithing everything exactly.
  2. The Pharisees are following, and insisting that everyone follow, the minor rules.
  3. By ignoring the major rules and focusing on the minor rules the Pharisees have put forward a front of false righteousness and implicitly endorsed this weak-willed Torah-obedience.

This criticism is familiar from the prophets. Isaiah 1:10-17 makes substantially the same claim – that God does not want offerings and festivals (minor Torah-following) from people who neglect the major issues of doing right and doing justice.

Of all the points in this passage only one, the first woe delivered to the teachers of the Law, appears to be a credible case against legalism. However, while the teachers of the Law may “load people with burdens hard to bear” it is odd that they are somehow unburdened themselves. With the Pharisees it seems that the Pharisees bind themselves under the same (or stricter) rules that they exhort others to follow. Since the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees frequently act as one body it is hard to imagine that they actually have radically different stances on this issue. I see two solutions to this.

First, Jesus may mean that (like I have suggested of the Pharisees) the teachers of the Law have created a number of picky interpretations of the Law that are hard for ordinary people to follow. In this case the teachers of the Law follow these rules but do not find them burdensome because they are insulated from the issues these rules create by their social standing.

Second, Jesus may mean that the teachers of the Law are simply doing something else with their teaching that makes life difficult for people. Perhaps they restrict access to Torah scrolls, or (somewhat like modern lawyers) create an impenetrably arcane system of judgment that is hard for ordinary people to navigate, or maybe they just give really unhelpful, supposedly Torah-based advice.

What I do not see as credible is that Jesus is attacking the Pharisees or the teachers of the Law for being obedient Torah-followers. Instead, I believe he is attacking them for the opposite – being frauds who “follow Torah” only for show.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: