Jesus and the Pharisees

Every time I read through the gospels I get a clearer picture of the intensity of the clash between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Matthew 12:1-2 (NASB)
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.
2 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

I secretly enjoy bringing up this passage in the company of my husband. He empathizes with Jesus in this situation and gets kinda fired up when he expresses his doubts that a group of Pharisees just happened to be out on the Sabbath in the particular grain field that Jesus and his disciples were passing through.

Yeah, those buggers were stalking him—keeping constant vigil, hoping to catch him in some ‘sin’. I can almost see their triumphant faces and pointed fingers poking out over the crops.

Lest we be deceived into thinking that they were only trying to preserve the law of God, Jesus calls them on the carpet.

Matthew 12:3-7 (NASB)
3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions,
4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?
5 “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?
6 “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.
7 “But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Their complaint was not based on actual particulars of the law, but on their own debatable interpretation of what offended the law of the Sabbath—and it was inconsistent. They were all worked up about some guys picking and eating grain—and yet they weren’t fretting over the theological tension of David and his men eating the consecrated bread that was forbidden for them. Nor were they attacking the priests for performing temple work on the Sabbath. They seemed to understand quite well that while God expected the Jews to observe the Sabbath, he never intended the outworking of that obedience to supplant mercy, compassion, and decency.

The Pharisees’ ‘zeal’ concerning the grain was in fact motivated by a growing fear that Jesus might indeed be ‘something greater than the temple’—as he claimed—and that he might cost them their power, control, position, and influence.

Sometime after the little field episode, Jesus is at their synagogue.

Talk about tension.

The Pharisees are already suspicious and seething. Jesus is also angry at this point. A reading of the parallel accounts in Luke, Matthew, and Mark paints the scene something like this.

A man with a withered hand is present in the syagogue. The scribes and Pharisees are watching…hoping Jesus will heal the man so they can nail him for working on the Sabbath. They even try to bait him by asking his opinion about whether such a thing is lawful.

Jesus is savvy.

He responds by calling the man forward and pointing out that any of them would rescue his own livestock out of a pit on the Sabbath. Once again he reveals the inconsistency and false motives of these religious leaders.

“How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!”   Matthew 12:12 (NASB)

“I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?”                   Luke 6:9 (NASB)

No one said a word.

After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.     Mark 3:5 (NASB)

But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.                Luke 6:11 (NASB)

The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.    Mark 3:6 (NASB)

Some observations that I’m still chewing on…

The Pharisees defense of the law of God was wrought with false motives.

They saw the man with the shriveled hand as a means to an end. There is no indication that they were at all pleased that he had been healed.

Jesus was angry and grieved with these guys’ hearts.

He was anything but passive in his response to their accusations.

He could have chosen to be more diplomatic in his dealing with them…and he didn’t.

Fueled by false motives and a complete unwillingness to repent, the Pharisees’ fear and hatred was such that they were willing to compromise and plot Jesus’ destruction with their usual adversaries—the Herodians.

After this episode Jesus withdrew and spent all night in prayer, and appointed the twelve the very next day. (Perhaps this particular conflict marked a turning point in Jesus ministry?)


2 thoughts on “Jesus and the Pharisees”

  1. On your final observations:

    It is a challenge to assume the mind of Christ. To be able to innately care for the weak and oppressed, and righteously take their side: I struggle to be more like this. It seems I am always fighting against a natural inclination to look out for number one and judge the rest… Enjoyed your thoughts.

    1. Similar struggle here–I find that I put myself so front and center that I don’t even really see the weak and oppressed. I am the log in my own eye.

      I have found two things helpful:

      1. Persistently asking God to reveal to me his heart for the people around me.(I have found that God is very willing to answer this prayer.)
      2. Being very intentional about looking around and trying to seeing people.

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