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Quit Picking on the Pharisees!

PEJORATIVE COMMENTS about racial and ethnic minorities, GLBTQI people, and the poor appropriately receive public censure. But say something negative about Pharisees, and the response is likely to be a hearty “amen.”

When anti-Pharisaic comments appear, especially from church pulpits or Christian magazines, few complain. And when correctives are suggested, the responses are usually something like, “Of course not all Pharisees were money-loving, sanctimonious hypocrites.” The comparison to other bigoted comments—“Of course not all Latinos are illegal; of course not all African Americans are lazy”—should tell us how insufficient the excuses are.

Just as we are heirs of centuries of racism, we are heirs of two millennia of negative stereotypes of Pharisees and, by extension, of Jews—for it is substantially from Pharisaic teaching that rabbinic Judaism springs. Whenever sermons and Bible studies proclaim that Jesus’ views concerning social justice are contrary to Jewish views grounded in Pharisaic teaching, they promote bad history and bad theology.

The pastors and priests who make such comments are not anti-Semites. Even Pope Francis, who is certainly no bigot, speaks of Pharisees as “Closed-minded men, men who are so attached to the laws, to the letter of the law, that they were always closing the doorway to hope, love, and salvation.” Rather, these interpreters are unaware of the history of the Pharisees and unaware as well of how these claims about Pharisees often bleed over into anti-Jewish invective.

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