Pharisees were the strict moral fundamentalists of their day. “Pharisee” was derived from a term that means “to separate.” As a sect of Judaism, they developed around the 2nd century BC. They soon became detached and distant from the political regimes. They determined that Israel’s condition was the result of sin, of disobedience to the Law. It was their intention to identify, communicate, and facilitate obedience to the law, thus producing holiness and paving the way for the kingdom of God to be established on the earth.
Pharisees believed in the inspiration and authority of the scripture, in the supernatural, in Satan, angels, heaven and hell, and the resurrection of the dead. Their goals were noble; their presuppositions were essentially correct. But, like their Christian fundamentalist equivalents in our day, they were hypocritically flawed.
Jesus had major problems with Pharisees—their self-righteousness; their mishandling of Scripture; their traditions, to which they gave higher priority than God’s revealed Word; their resistance to Him, and their efforts to discredit Him.
At the home of a certain Pharisee, all of these conflicts come rushing to the surface as Jesus goes on a rant against Pharisaism. He says that Pharisees focus on the fine points, but miss the fundamentals. The major thrust of the Law—justice and the love of God—was being overlooked.
Jesus says that the Pharisees were preoccupied with human position, prestige, and praise. They couldn’t speak the truth, nor could they interpret the Scriptures accurately, for then they would have been hated and rejected, just as the prophets, who did interpret the Scriptures accurately and spoke truthfully.
In the Law that the Pharisees professed to revere (Numbers 19:16), the Israelites were taught that a person was made ceremonially unclean by coming into contact with a grave. The Pharisees thought of themselves as holy, and they saw their contribution as leading the nation in the direction of holiness. But Jesus told them that the exact opposite was the case. They were themselves both unclean (sinful) and they were defiling to others. Thus, those who came into contact with the Pharisees were rendered unclean.
The overall thrust is Jesus’ contrast between the outer man, which is secondary, and the inner man, which is primary. Jesus differs from the Pharisees by seeing the heart as being more important than appearances; our attitudes and motives as more important than our actions. The Pharisees believed that a man is made holy by working from the outside, in. Jesus believed that holiness—and defilement—comes from the inside, out.
The Law dealt with external things, but its purpose was to teach Israel about the heart. Jesus could therefore summarize the whole Law in terms of love (Matthew 22:37-39). He taught that obedience to the Law must be a matter of spirit, and not just of letter.
Finally, Jesus told the Pharisee that the way to “clean up” was to empty the contents of the dish—what was inside. We can’t clean the inside of a dish if it’s full.
The moral? Don’t be a Pharisee!