By Christine Venzon
Ronnie Corbett, a beloved British comedian, died in March 2016. In one typical skit, Corbett played a game show contestant named Charlie Smithers. The subject he’d chosen was called “Answer the Question Before Last.” It requires him to answer the question previously asked. The skit starts like this:
Host: And so to our final contestant. Your name, please?
Smithers: Good evening.
Host: You have chosen to Answer the Question Before Last. Is that correct?
Smithers: Charlie Smithers.
As the skit proceeded, Smithers called the list of members of the British royalty “a study of old fossils” (answering the previous question, “What is paleontology?”). Asked, “What did Toulouse-Lautrec do?” he replied, “Paint strippers” (the previous question concerned methylene chlorides, chemical mixtures that are used to strip paint). He identified “the leader of the mineworkers’ union” as “a famous clown who made millions laugh with his funny hair” (that would be Arthur Scargill and Coco the Clown, respectively).
The Pharisees remind me of Charlie Smithers, without the laughs. In their go-rounds with Jesus, the Pharisees were always a step behind, not in time but in understanding. They thought of only the material, while Jesus spoke of the spiritual. They thought in terms of this world; he was trying to tell them about the next.
Pharisees, Pro and Con
History has saddled the Pharisees with a less-than-flattering reputation. Yet among the Jews of their time, they were a respected class. The Pharisees were educated, ultraorthodox Jews, part religious faction and part political party, recognized by the people as authorities on the law and its observance. They were instrumental in keeping Judaism alive after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and in AD 70, when the Jews were surrounded by pagan cultures and lacked a temple in which to worship.
Yet this passionate devotion to the faith was also their spiritual downfall. Human nature being what it is, they were proud of their position and importance—justifiably, by human standards—which made them the target of some of Jesus’ severest criticism. In Matthew 23, Jesus predicted “woe” to these “blind guides,” this “brood of vipers,” these “hypocrites” (vv. 13-33) Remember the parable in Luke 18 about the man who went to the temple thanking God that “I am not like other people,” who ticked off his virtuous acts—and whose prayers were not heard? Jesus could have said the man was a lawyer or a scribe. Instead, he made him a Pharisee.
The feeling was mutual: as the Messiah, the Pharisees thought Jesus left a lot to be desired: he ate with sinners; he worked on the Sabbath (so what if he was working miracles?). He failed to meet so many expectations; how could they see him as anything but human and take his words as anything but literal?
For instance, when Jesus said, “You will look for me, but you will not find me” (John 7:34), the Jews (as John called the Jewish leaders, as opposed to “the people” or “the crowd”) asked, “Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks?” (v. 35). Jesus’ destination was much farther away, especially for them. When he told them “where I am, you cannot come” (v. 36), they didn’t imagine, much less believe, he meant Heaven. After all, if anyone had a membership card for Heaven, it was them.
Like the host in Corbett’s skit, the Pharisees didn’t get the “right” answers to their questions. Unlike the host, they didn’t understand why.
Winning Friends, Influencing People
Understandably the Jewish people were confused about Jesus. The Pharisees and other leading Jews were obviously disdainful and suspicious. Yet he taught with such authority and wisdom. He worked miracles. “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?” (John 7:31), they asked. Jesus even spoke the truth that many must have harbored in their hearts: the Pharisees “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). The Pharisees had no sympathy for the shepherd trying to keep ritually clean when eating in the field among the flock.
As the author Fr. George Rutler wrote, the Pharisees were like paint-by-number painters. They followed a reliable pattern, never delving into the reasons it was set out as it was. They rejected the gift of insight, offered by the master painter himself, that would have allowed them to become real artists. (Unlike another later Pharisee, Paul, whose understanding of the law and the prophets enlightened him to see how Jesus fulfilled them.)
If the Pharisees had truly been seeking the truth and the light, for themselves and for those who looked to them for instruction, they might have led the people to become Jesus’ followers. Instead they remained “blind fools,” unwilling to see past their own self-serving bias.
Pharisees, the Sequel
Two thousand years later, the Pharisees’ legacy lives on—in us. As the Pharisees assumed that scouring their cups and tithing mint put them at the top of God’s saved list, we sometimes come to God with a sense of entitlement—what’s more, we approach him with this notion that we know better than he does.
When we pray, for example, we may ask for good things (as the world defines good) to make us happy (as the world defines happy): a job, health, maybe money. There’s nothing wrong with that. But suppose we don’t get that raise or the test from the hospital comes back with bad news.
To the Pharisee, a disappointed prayer means somebody hasn’t been living right. The Christian sees beyond that legalist image of God. If God doesn’t take the cross off our shoulders, it’s not because he’s displeased or ignoring us: it’s because he himself helps us carry it. Through his Holy Spirit he gives us better gifts, supernatural gifts that allow us to be truly happy, even joyful, regardless of our circumstances.
Jesus gives us faith—faith in him as our Savior and in the Father who sent him. If faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, certainly it will help us cope with whatever smaller obstacles we face, for “nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
Jesus gives us hope. This hope “does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). And “if we hope for what we do not have, we wait for it patiently” (8:25), resisting the temptation to give up on God and his promises.
Jesus gives us love—the greatest gift of all. That love is himself: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It’s this realization that he loves us uniquely, personally, and unconditionally that sustains us, even when our lives and the whole world seem to be unraveling. This is more valuable than anything we think we need, if only we recognize it.
Like the Pharisees, our witness may have far-reaching consequences in our faith community. In their obstinacy, the Pharisees led people away from Jesus, left them wandering in a spiritual wilderness. So, too, our refusal to accept God’s will and to recognize his working in our lives can throw a roadblock into other people’s journey. It can leave them distant, skeptical, out in the spiritual woods. Some may never find their way—or the way. “If your God can’t or won’t get you a job or cure your sick aunt,” they ask, “why should I believe in him? Really, would I want to serve a God who plays favorites like that?”
It isn’t easy to follow Jesus when we don’t always understand him. It isn’t easy to accept that God’s wisdom is greater than ours. But it’s the only way to make sense of things that otherwise would lead to anger and despair. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus assured us, and we know that’s true. We can also believe his promise: “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Christine Venzon lives in Peoria, Illinois, where she writes in an unassuming home office.