What is a Modern-Day Pharisee?
When we talk about modern-day Pharisees we talk about a particular approach to sin, to doing things wrong. It was an approach that Jesus criticised but which He saw everywhere among religious types of His day.
Yet just because it was most obviously embodied by important religious figures when Jesus was alive, doesn’t mean people who don’t follow one of the world religions are safe from it. You don’t have to be ‘religious’ in this sense to be a Pharisee. Anyone can be a Pharisee. Secular people can be modern-day Pharisees too. Anyone who tries to be a ‘good person’ can fall into the trap.
Modern-Day Sin and Modern-Day Sinners
So, why can secular people still be modern-day Pharisees? Part of the reason why a secular person can still take the Pharisaic approach to sin is because, even if they don’t call it by that word, most secular people know that they ‘sin’.
Most of us know that we’re not measuring up – regardless of whether we go to church on a Sunday or any other place of worship.
It definitely isn’t just religious people, for example, who know that we abuse our planet, or that we are each part of a biased system which generation after generation continues to privilege unfairly the same kind of people over others. Many of us try to fight it but even so, we’re a part of the brokenness and we can’t totally eliminate our contribution to the brokenness.
I watched a video recently called: ‘How many slaves do you own?‘. Its popularity has, in part, been prompted by the BLM movement. It shows that the most apparently moral of us in modern day Britain don’t measure up. Most British people do not, in theory, agree with slavery and yet – we’re all complicit in it. We all have slaves.
They don’t serve us at our tables or work outside our houses in a plantation. Instead they’re far off in other countries or concealed from public view in our own, but they serve us and we benefit from their labour. None of us is free from guilt.
What Christianity Teaches about Sin
This is not news for Christians – or at least, it shouldn’t be. The Bible says much the same thing: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’. (1 John 1:8). The reality described in the Bible is that the world is broken and we are part of that brokenness. One of the most prestigious figures in the Bible – Abraham – did many immoral things and the Bible doesn’t shy away from this. Most often we talk about how he lied to Pharaoh and how this put his wife Sarah at risk. We don’t often talk about the fact that Abraham was also a slave owner.
Abraham had an African slave girl called Hagar. This slave girl was forced to have his child and was then treated cruelly by Sarah out of jealousy. This sin is acknowledged in the Bible and yet not condoned. God took care of Hagar – meeting her in the desert as, still pregnant, she ran away from her mistress. God saw to her preservation, and that of her child, and they eventually settled away from their previous owners. One day, in a reversal of fortunes, Abraham’s descendants would find themselves as slaves. Finding themselves as such, God would extend the same mercy to them too – ultimately rescuing them from their bondage.
The Approach of Modern-Day Pharisees to Sin
So, whether in Biblical times or now we all sin and we all have guilt. What do we do about it?
As said before, the Bible presents two approaches to the problem.
The first is very similar to the approach taken by the moral London-types criticised in the video I mentioned. It’s also a strikingly similar attitude to the one of the Pharisees of the Bible. Namely: we can try to do everything right. We can recycle, we can buy free-trade products, we can try to eliminate completely any contribution to the world’s brokenness.
But can we, actually?
As already demonstrated, the video suggests not and the Bible suggests not also.
Aside from that, Jesus taught that all this do-gooding could in fact be contributing to the very problems it’s trying to solve.
Why ‘Doing Good’ Might Not Be Good
Jesus believed that it was important to do good … of course He did. But He gave us the command to do good with a warning: watch out for your motivation. If you do good out of the wrong motivation it can corrupt your heart as much as doing bad. And even if you start out with the right motivation, that motivation can quickly go sour if you start to become addicted to all the praise and glory you get for it.
In the Bible Jesus repeatedly shows concern at how the Pharisees do good things for the wrong reasons: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” (Matthew 23:5). This being so their apparent charitableness and moral uprightness feed their pride and their desire to appear better than others. Their heart becomes infected by doing good.
I’m sure you can think of a few people like this. People who like to show off how they’re doing so many great and moral things but their heart isn’t quite in the right place. I can think of several celebrity modern-day Pharisees who preach in public to us about climate change and then fly around by private jet. I’m sure you can think of other modern-day Pharisees closer to home who do similar things (though probably on a less extreme scale). As far as Jesus is concerned, this is a dangerous moral game to be playing.
How Can We Avoid Being Modern-Day Pharisees?
To avoid the trap of doing good for the positive publicity, Jesus gave us a few safeguards to protect our hearts from the toxic influences of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and becoming too dependent on people’s praise. These safeguards can be summarised in simple terms as … don’t make a show of it. Or as He puts it in Matthew 6:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”
That means giving money to charity in secret (Matthew 6:2-4), praying in private (Matthew 6:5-6) and not making it painfully obvious to everyone how much you’re suffering when you fast (Matthew 6:16-18).
The same can be applied to common ways of doing good today. By all means try to limit your contribution to the brokenness of the world. Recycle, campaign for causes that matter, buy from ethical sources – but don’t make a big social media event out of it. That way you protect yourself from the wrong motivations of modern-day Pharisees … such as craving the congratulations you may get afterwards.
Can Modern-Day Pharisees Ever Do Enough Good to be Good?
Another reason why you should avoid doing good for the big congratulations afterwards is because it’s deeply misleading. When everyone is praising you for what a great person you are for what you do … you might, well, actually start to believe them. The outward appearance of doing good deeds does not make you a good person. For Jesus, it’s much more important what’s going on inside … in your heart.
As far as Jesus was concerned, the Pharisees failed massively at this. While on the outside they seemed to be doing everything perfectly and had drawn up a great list of rules and rituals to follow, it was a different story if you looked into the workings and motivations of their hearts. As Jesus warned them:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you … outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Their do-gooding detracted from the real heart problem: which is that we sin because our hearts are sinful, we do bad things because inside we want things and believe things that are out of step with God’s will.
The Origin of Sin and How Not to Fix It
After all, according to the Bible, sin came into the world in the Garden of Eden because we wanted our way instead of God’s way and believed things about God and ourselves that weren’t true. These heart problems are the fundamental ones that need to be fixed … not how much ‘mint’, ‘dill’ or ‘cumin’ you tithe or any of the other obscure and quite random-sounding rules that the Pharisees were teaching their followers.
For me, a modern equivalent to the Pharisees’ obsessing over small details which achieve little (other than a sense of superiority in those who do the obsessing), can be found in the plastic straw controversy. Many of you will have seen how the banning of plastic straws has been encouraged in many places around the world to reduce how plastic waste impacts the environment. Yet plastic straws have a very small overall contribution (0.022%) to the plastic waste we litter the oceans with each year (for more on this check this article out).
Not only that, but these bans don’t consider the impact on certain members of the disabled community who need straws to drink and are made to feel bad for using them (which they can’t help). Is this not an example of placing ‘heavy burdens, hard to bear’ (Matthew 23:4) on people’s shoulders that are symbolic at best and, whilst making people who can’t keep them feel bad, don’t confront the root heart issues, such as … why did we ever start to think that such a self-serving attitude towards God’s creation was ever okay?
Jesus’ Approach to Sin: Heart-Fixing
If our sinfulness springs from our hearts then to go about stopping ourselves from sinning must require a deep and mysterious surgical operation. That’s exactly what happens when we let God into our lives. The process isn’t always fast and it won’t come into completion in this life, but that’s the aim. We hope to put off our old sinful selves and be renewed by the Holy Spirit into versions which live up to our original design – to be made in the image of God.
With our inward part receiving correction, our actions can begin to go about the task of alleviating some of the brokenness of this deeply flawed, groaning creation without contaminating as much as we heal.