“You are nothing but a Pharisee,” said Maggie with vehemence. “You thank God for nothing but your own virtues; you think they are great enough to win you everything else.”(1)
Whether familiar or new to the scathing words of Maggie Tulliver to her brother Tom in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, it is clear that she is not speaking complimentarily.
The word “Pharisee,” as this interchange illustrates, is often used as something of a synonym for hypocrite, a haughty individual with a holier-than-thou air about them. Webster’s dictionary further articulates this common usage, defining the adjective “pharisaical” as being marked by “hypocritical censorious self-righteousness,” or “pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without actually being so.”(2) To be called a Pharisee is far from a compliment; it is to be accused of living with a false sense of righteousness, being blind and foolish with self-deception, or carrying oneself with a smug and hypocritical legalism.
The etymology of the word from its roots as a proper noun to its use as an adjective is one intertwined with history, drawing on the very tone with which a rabbi from Nazareth once spoke to the religious group that bore the name. In seven consecutive statements recorded in the book of Matthew, Jesus begins his stern rebukes with the scathing introductions: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” “Woe to you blind guides!” His conclusion is equally pejorative: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”(3) The word “Pharisee” has become far more associated with this critique than its greater context. Thus Maggie can call her brother a Pharisee and not be thinking of the Jewish sect of leaders for which Jesus had harsh words, but of the harsh words themselves.
Yet taking something out of context, even if Webster’s dictionary grants the permission, can be dangerously misleading. These were not always the connotations of the word Pharisee, and we do ourselves and the words of Jesus a disservice by assuming that his harsh words are all we need to remember about them. Quite ironically, the description “pharisaical” would once have been a great compliment. The Pharisees were highly regarded guardians of the strict interpretation and application of Jewish Law. They were known for their zeal and for their uncompromising ways of following the God of their fathers. It is likely that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee, and it is suggested that much of his Christian theology owes something to the shape and content of this earlier training.(4) In other words, to be a Pharisee was not an easy life riddled with loopholes and duplicities, like we might assume. The Pharisees were so certain there was a right way to follow God that they sought to follow this God to that very letter with all of their lives.
In this light, Jesus’s words seem a little harsher, his tone a little crueler—and perhaps his warnings a little closer to home. In the Pharisees, Jesus scolded the very best of the religious crowd, those who dedicated everything, and cared the deepest about following God. If Jesus came today into churches and singled out the ministers who work the hardest, the youth who are most involved, and the families who serve most consistently and called them a brood of vipers, we would be hurt and confused and even defensive. This is exactly what happened amongst the Pharisees.
But not all were so defensive that they refused to hear. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the obscurity of darkness and found himself confronted by a conversation about flesh and light. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council, who was highly regarded. This most likely explains the veil of night by which he sought to meet Jesus; the comments against his fellow Pharisees were not met with open arms. Even so, it was an act of faith to seek out this controversial young man from Galilee; it was an act of humility to grapple with a message that thoroughly confused him, accusations that cut to his very core, and words that called even the God he knew into question. Yet this initial meeting with Jesus was for Nicodemus the beginning of life made new. This Pharisee who had come so far in his faith, who had lived so great a commitment to God, had not come so far as to reject the idea that even he might need to stop and turn around. Might the Pharisee in all of us respond similarly.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (New York: Penguin, 2002), 394.
(2) Merriam-Webster Online, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pharisaical, and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (Cleveland: William Collins Publishers, 1980), 1066.
(3) Matthew 23:33.
(4) N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 182.