The Pharisees get a bad rap for being too scrupulous, overly careful, and nitpicky. Even the dictionary views them in this way. A quick trip to Dictionary.com highlights the Pharisees as a Jewish sect which was known for ”strict observance of religious ceremonies and practices”. While it may be good to be careful, it is often argued that we should not be “too careful”, lest we become like the Pharisees.
Is this an accurate description of the Pharisees we meet in the pages of the New Testament? Jesus does get after them. But why does He get after them? What are their actual shortcomings? All too often, people assume Jesus wanted people to “relax”. “Don’t be uptight like the Pharisees.” “Don’t worry about keeping so many rules.”
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Many people assume that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to switch over from being “penny wise and pound foolish”, to being “pound wise and penny foolish.” Basically, just “love your fellow man, and forget about tithing your herbs.”
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus never said that we should focus on the primary issues, and relax on the secondary issues. Rather, He said we should be vigilant and obedient in both areas. We are called to be both “penny wise and pound wise”. Every aspect of our lives is to be governed by wisdom.
Here is Matthew 23:23 again, this time in a full quotation:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.“
Jesus was telling the Pharisees, “You need to focus on justice, mercy, and faith. And at the same time, you should continue tithing your mint, anise, and cumin.”
In other words, the problem is not that the Pharisees were overly scrupulous.
The problem is that they were not scrupulous enough.
Jesus does not tell them to “lighten up” or to “relax”. He never says they are being “too careful” in their obedience of God’s laws. On the contrary, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for being slackers, for constantly falling behind, for barely obeying God halfway:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:25-26)
The Pharisees were clean on the outside, but not on the inside. Jesus says they need to be clean both inside and outside. It is not an either/or proposition.
Jesus does not say our righteousness needs to be more relaxed than the Pharisees.
Rather, Jesus says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees:
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
The problem is not that the Pharisees were too scrupulous.
The problem is that they were too lazy.