To be sure, stealing is always wrong, except when the bad guys are the good guys (or if not good guys, at least lovable rogues); and then stealing is both good and fun (if you are reading this to your young children, maybe you should have skipped this first sentence). Here’s proof. Below are four movies. For each movie, please identify the bad guys (defined as who you want to fail):

  1. The Sting – Redford and Newman are con men trying to steal major money from crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan. Who are the bad guys: the thieves or the mark?
  2. The Italian Job – Sutherland and Wahlberg have a plan to steal $35 million in gold bars from a heavily guarded safe in Venice, Italy. After the heist, one of the gang betrays his friends and steals the gold for himself. The rest of the movie is about stealing the gold back. Who are the bad guys: the thieves, the original owner of the gold or the gang member who betrayed his friends?
  3. The Inside Man – A team robs a bank to steal diamonds from a war criminal who has locked the diamonds in the bank vault, but to do so they have to take everyone in the bank hostage. Who are the bad guys: the bank robbers or the police?
  4. Ocean’s Eleven – Danny Ocean gathers 10 expert thieves to score the biggest heist ever. The plan? To rob Las Vegas’ biggest casinos (who are all owned by Ocean’s arch nemesis) and walk away with $150 million. Who are the bad guys: the thieves or the casinos?

I’ve seen every one of these movies, and for me it is clear. I am rooting for the thieves every time! And I am very comfortable admitting that sometimes a bad guy can really be a good guy and that so much depends on how you are looking at the situation (example, Robin Hood). But oftentimes, when we read the gospels, we have it in our heads that the Pharisees are always the bad guys. And sometimes that is correct; but other times, it is way off the mark. And that means we need to read each text in its proper context and see what the author is emphasizing. More than that, it means that thoughtlessly categorizing someone as a bad guy can derail what the original author was saying. So, who were the Pharisees? That depends. Sometimes, they are portrayed as the good guys. Sometimes, they were portrayed as doubters who had questions, but who were truly seeking the truth. Sometimes, they were portrayed as skeptics who wanted to know the truth, but struggled mightily with Jesus. And sometimes, they were portrayed as the bad guys. And if that is the case, you can’t just jump to the conclusion that every time we see the word, “Pharisee,” we are in the presence of pond scum (pond scum being defined here as hypocritical legalists who were seeking to promote their own self-righteousness).  

Now, even though I say that, you might not believe me. So let me give you a quick tour of the relevant texts in an effort to bowl you over with how many times the Pharisees were perceived to be in support of Jesus (or at least trying honestly to figure Jesus out). To me (and hopefully to the rest of us who always saw the Pharisees as bad to the bone since our first day in church), the evidence was eye-opening.

Consider these cases where the Pharisees were clearly highlighted in the gospels as “good guys.”

  • Matthew 5:20 – Jesus, in one sense, applauds the righteousness of the Pharisees even as he calls on us to surpass it (For 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 9:14 – John’s disciples note that the Pharisees fast (a good thing), but Jesus’ disciples don’t and ask Jesus “why” because in their thinking the Pharisees are right (Then, John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”).
  • Luke 5:17ff – Pharisees from all over Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem are listening to Jesus as he is teaching. After his “message,” the text tells us that the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Luke tells us that because of the crowd in the house, some men lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof so that Jesus could heal him. When Jesus announces that this man’s sins are forgiven, the Pharisees balk, asking, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But Jesus asks which is easier, to say “your sins are forgiven” or to heal a paralyzed man? And then he commands the man to get up and walk. The story ends with this line (verse 26): “Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’” (“Everyone” seems to imply even the Pharisees which implies the Pharisees were willing to listen and be convinced of Jesus’ power.)
  • Luke 7:36 – Jesus was often invited by Pharisees to come and eat with him, something one would only do if there was some consideration of the two parties being somewhat of the same mind. And Jesus accepted these invitations! (When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.”) cf. Luke 14:1 – “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.” 
  • Luke 13:31 – It was the Pharisees who came to Jesus to tell him that his life was in danger from Herod (At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’”).
  • Luke 14:15 – In some cases, the Pharisees respond positively to Jesus and his message. When Jesus is invited to dine at the house of a prominent Pharisee, he speaks about humility and about the resurrection of the righteous; and one of the Pharisees blesses all who are righteous in full agreement with all that Jesus has said (“When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’”).
  • John 3:1 – Nicodemus is highlighted as a man seeking the truth and finding it, much like the Samaritan woman. The main difference? Nicodemus was a Pharisee (Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.”) See also, John 7:50-52 where Nicodemus is clearly an advocate for Jesus and John 19:39 where Nicodemus is involved in Jesus’ burial after the crucifixion. 
  • John 9:16 – After Jesus heals the blind man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are debating who this Jesus is. One group argues strongly that Jesus could not come from God since he does not keep the Sabbath; but then John says, some Pharisees believe the evidence clearly points to Jesus as coming from God (But others asked, ‘How can a sinner perform such signs?’ So they were divided.”)

The following passages present the Pharisees as seeking the truth (often because they did not understand what Jesus was saying or doing) by asking Jesus hard questions (but their questions are not cast in a negative light by the gospel authors, which means if we read them as negative, we may be supplying the disapproval). All of these passages offer honest questions to Jesus to which he responds honestly (i.e., Jesus answers their questions without any hint of rebuke).

  • Matthew 5:11-12 – When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.’”
  • Matthew 12:1-2 — “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’”
  • Mark 2:16 – “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”
  • Mark 2:23-34 – One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain.  The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’”
  • Luke 5:29-30 – Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” 
  • Luke 6:2 – Some of the Pharisees asked, ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’”
  • Luke 7:39 – “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this [the sinful woman anointing Jesus], he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.’”
  • Lk 17:20-21 – Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” 
  • Matthew 22:41-42, 46 – While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, ‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ ‘The son of David,’ they replied. . . [After Jesus’ words] No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
  •  Luke 15:1-2 – “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The following passages present the Pharisees as seeking the truth, but there is a negative edge to Jesus’ response (honest questions, but an exasperated Jesus responds to their obvious lack of faith and understanding, made all the more glaring because they should have known better since the Pharisees were Israel’s teachers).

  • Matthew 12:38-39 – “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’ He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’” 
  • Matthew 15:1-2 — Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Note: Jesus’ response in verse 3: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” and the disciples’ pro-Pharisee (?) comments in verse 12: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’”) See also the parallel in Mark 7:6 ff where Jesus criticizes the Pharisees harshly by saying, “’Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’” 
  • Matthew 19:3 — Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
  • Mark 10:1-2 – “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”
  • Luke 19:37-39 – “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’” 

Now, I could list a ton of passages where the Pharisees were clearly portrayed as the bad guys, but we all know that. It was some of the Pharisees who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Mt. 9:34). It was some of the Pharisees who went out, trying to trap Jesus in his words (Mt. 22:15). Some of the Pharisees were confident of their own righteousness (Luke 18:9). It was some of the Pharisees who loved money (Luke 16:14). It was some of the Pharisees who plotted how they might kill Jesus (Mt. 12:14). And it was some of the Pharisees that Jesus castigated in his famous sermon in Matthew 23 (“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!”). But we cannot put every Pharisee ever into the Matthew 23 bucket.

Five quick closing observations. First, the Pharisees were mentioned a lot! Jens Schroter in the Levine and Sievers’ book, The Pharisees, writes: 

“According to the gospels, the Pharisees are the most important Jewish party in Jesus’s time. They are mentioned almost a hundred times, far more often than in Josephus and in striking contrast to other Jewish sources that refer to the Pharisees often indirectly and in passing. In the gospels and Acts, the Pharisees appear as a powerful and influential party, mostly in sharp opposition to Jesus and his followers. They are mentioned much more often than the Sadducees and also more often than the scribes, while the Essenes never appear in the New Testament.” 

Second, the Pharisees received a lot more good press in the Gospels than I had previously thought (this was my big take-away). Third, many Pharisees must have come to Christ after Pentecost because we hear their strong voice in Acts 15, arguing that the Gentiles must be circumcised and be required to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). But not all held that view. For instance, one Pharisee Christ follower who did not argue for such a thing was named Paul (Phil. 3:5). Fourth, interestingly, none of the gospels place a lot of the blame for Jesus’ death  on the Pharisees. The last mention of the Pharisees in Luke has them complaining to Jesus at the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19 (“Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”). Mark mentions the Pharisees raising a question about paying taxes to Caesar during Holy Week (Mark 12:13), but that is the last time they are mentioned. John says that the Pharisees were instrumental in having Jesus arrested (John 18:3 says, “So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.”). Matthew, of course, records Jesus’ seven woes on the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Matthew 23 (during Holy Week), but then says nothing about the Pharisees’ involvement in Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. The last mention of the Pharisees in Matthew is when they ask Pilate to post a guard at the tomb (Mt. 27:62-66). You would have thought, especially based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, that the Pharisees would be front and center in the events of Jesus’ death, but no. And last, my (low) opinion of the Pharisees is shaped to a large degree by Matthew 23; and that’s why, next week, we will spend our blog looking at that passage.