Did Jesus reserve his harshest criticism for the religious?

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Often we hear like-for-like comparisons made between church leaders and the Pharisees. People might say something such as, ‘Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for the religious leaders.’

A famous passage where Jesus seemingly does this is Matthew 23:2-4, 17, 27, 33, where he refers to the Pharisees as lazy, hypocritical, whitewashed tombs, snakes vipers, and children of hell. I could give a rundown of the modern-day equivalents of these insults, but I want to keep my job as a pastor. Suffice to say, Jesus hammered the Pharisees with enough invective that we can fairly accurately declare that he didn’t like them at all.

Now, the common, and very powerful application that is often made is as mentioned above: Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for the religious leaders, and therefore so should we. And there is certainly more than a grain of truth in this, as the Pharisees were religious, they were often leaders, and as Jesus said, they sat in Moses’ seat.

This application is then further extended to filter down to every level of the church leadership, and then on to all Christians who have what is considered unreasonably high standards of behaviour, or are considered too judgemental, or who add to the commands of scripture, or who nullify passages of scripture because of certain traditions, etc. Every Christian is aware of the way this teaching on Jesus’ anger towards Pharisees is used to challenge church culture.

I have made many similar applications myself in many sermons over the years. And I will put my hand up and admit to being a Pharisee more than once, and I take very seriously the need to examine myself, reserve judgement, and seek not to put burdens on people with my teaching, so as to not be a Pharisee in practice. But I know I don’t do it perfectly, I admit that many of us Christians fail in this regard more than we should.

Now there are those who see Jesus attacking these religious leaders and they add this to their application of this passage: you should never use such strong or harsh language with non-believers because Jesus only reserved it for Christian leaders. But here is the quandary: the Pharisees weren’t church leaders. So, to compare them to church leaders is not quite exact or completely accurate.

The Pharisees would better be described as thought leaders, cultural leaders, culture pushers, or even culture watchdogs. Some of them would have been synagogue leaders, and members of the Sanhedrin, or part of the Levitical priesthood.

But there is a really big difference between Jewish culture in the 1st century AD and our culture in the modern West that people often miss: the Jews in first century Israel, and indeed prior to that century, lived in a culture that did not separate the Church and the state, as we do in our modern culture.

Therefore, in their culture, there wasn’t a distinction between the religious leaders, and secular leaders, there was just the leaders. Our modern culture has, to a large degree, split the leadership of the church, and the wider society apart. Where, apart from the occasional exception, religious leaders and, say, government leaders, or culture leaders are not the same thing.

So, it would be much more accurate to say that Jesus was attacking the leaders of the Jewish people. When he says that they sat in Moses’ seat this means that they sat in the role of the judgement of the people on what was right and what was not right. Moses was a prophet, he was a Levite, but he was also a judge who had to determine what we would consider both civil and religious matters of law.

So being in Moses’ seat would include our modern equivalent of religious leaders, and it would also include, judges, politicians at every level, media commentators, opinion journalists, and many other people in our modern culture.

Indeed, if I were to explain it this way: the Pharisees were the equivalent of the thought police in their day, who rallied up antagonism against those who broke social taboos, expected synagogue leaders to tow their very strict, but to some degree subjective, interpretation of a morality code, who had people fired and persecuted for not living according to their values, and made everyone around them walk on eggshells regarding what they said and did…who would this remind you off?

Well, it sounds so much more like the modern progressive left than the actual Church in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong the ‘church’ has engaged in such behaviour at different points in the past, and likely will again in the future. But the Church is no longer the dominant cultural force in modern Australia. People don’t get harassed at work for not wearing crosses or Jesus fish, and not celebrating Christmas. They get harassed at work for not wearing rainbow flags, or celebrating pride month, or sharing Bible teachings that contradict our sexular culture.

The new cultural leaders have a very different ideology to the Pharisees of the 1st century, but they are the exact same type of person: they are the people who want to enforce their morality on others, who make others feel judged and pressured into complying, and who, even though they are a minority, punch above their weight precisely because they are so radical.

So, when you realize that Jesus wasn’t talking to church leaders, he was talking to culture leaders in a religious society, and that equivalent people in culture can be found both inside the church, and outside the church, then you realize that Jesus didn’t reserve his harshest words just for corrupt religious leaders.

He reserved his harshest words for leaders who harm people. He reserved his harshest words for leaders who police people according to ridiculous standards of morality, they themselves don’t even try to uphold. He reserved his harshest words for those who like whitewashed tombs virtual signal on the outside, but on the inside have evil intentions, and love the attention virtual signalling affords them.

If you took a Pharisee and transported him to today’s world, he might not recognize much of the world we live in today. But he would work out pretty quickly who to cosy up to so that he could gain the social recognition in society he craved, and it would be just as likely he found those people outside the church as in it.

If this is the case, and it surely is the case, then maybe we in the church should not get so pedantic and precious when every now and then someone responds to the Pharisees of the modern sexual culture in the same way Jesus spoke to the Pharisees of his day.

Every culture has its harmful culture police, who place insane burdens on people’s backs. And in every culture, they should be challenged by those who believe in the beautiful, the good, and the true, whether they go to church or not. And if sometimes they are harsh, like Jesus was harsh to the Pharisees in sharing his message, then that’s OK.

There are many things we should imitate Jesus in, and one of those things we should imitate is Jesus’ anger towards leaders, whether thought leaders, cultural leaders, or other people powerful people, who harm people with their ridiculous virtue signalling moral policing.

The next time you see someone challenging the cultural progressives the way Jesus challenged the Pharisees, harshly, rather than simply telling them to be more polite, stop for a moment and ask yourself: might their anger be warranted? There are times when it is the only just response. We should be slow to anger, but not so slow that we allow people to be harmed.


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