The Spirit of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes

Often, the challenge of the church is to not be the High Council, the Pharisee, the Herodian, the Sadducee, or the scribe. It’s not necessarily that anyone who’s a part of a church tries to become like one of these people. No one does. More often than not, attitudes just start to creep into our lives and hearts slowly. Then one day, after months or years, a Christian, whether an average person or leader, has an experience where he or she suddenly wakes up and realizes that they’ve adopted a religious attitude that Jesus taught against.

Just a few days before his crucifixion, Jesus encountered challenge after challenge from these same leaders of Israel. Reading between Mark 11:27 and 12:44, Jesus encountered all of these groups in a single day at the temple, one right after the other. They all confront his authority, seeking to trap him in one way or the other. In his typical way, Jesus wisely outmaneuvers each of the challenges, condemning the overall attitudes and agendas of each group.

The popular accusation that we so often see today is to call someone a Pharisee. “You’re such a Pharisee!” We see legalism, hypocrisy, and turning extra-biblical conclusions into gospel law.

Remember, though, what Jesus taught in Matthew and Luke about logs and specks in our eyes and our neighbors’ eyes? In confronting the spirit of the Pharisees, we need to be aware that we don’t become Pharisees ourselves! Grace, humility, and forgiveness are essential, as well as having an attitude of being willing to walk an extra mile with the other individual, no matter how much we disagree.

But don’t forget about the other groups. The High Council recognized Jesus’ authority, but did not want to really acknowledge it. The Sadducees and Jesus were very opposed theologically. The Herodians allied themselves with the rulers. And the scribes could be self-righteous and manipulative.

While Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees, he saw the dangers of the others. He called out members of the High Council with the parable of the tenants. He simply told the Sadducees directly that they were very wrong. And he preached publicly about the self-righteousness of the scribes. Jesus warned against pride, arrogance, condescension, and smugness. These are the very attitudes we must also watch out for in our own hearts.

Too often, in challenging the Pharisees of the church, we unintentionally adopt the spirit of the Sadducees or the scribes of the church. Without realizing it, we engage in arguments and conversations that are arrogant or condescending, masked in a falsely humble assumption that we’re simply correct. And even though we appear to be listening to another’s thoughts and opinions, we’re really only giving lip-service to them instead.

The Sadducees, scribes, and other religious leaders might’ve been more intentional in their arrogance. And unfortunately, outright arrogance can be an easy temptation to fall in to today as well.

Be careful though. Because one day you might be arguing with someone who you consider to be the “least of these” qualified to challenge you about Christianity, interpreting scripture, the ins and outs and details of Christian rituals and sacraments, or politics, philosophy, or whatever other situation or field you might be discussing, and it might just be Jesus telling you, like he did with the Sadducees, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” and “You are quite wrong.”

Contrasting all those encounters, there is one encouraging conversation that Jesus had that day at the temple that points us in the right direction. Confrontation after confrontation, Jesus goes against religious leaders trying to trap and manipulate him. Finally, though, a lone scribe comes and has a conversation with Jesus, revealing the true point of the kingdom of God: love God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). In fact, it’s the scribe who says, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

To love God with everything that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself means setting aside arrogance, condescension, and presuppositions that just assume we’re right because we’re right, even in the often subjective world of theology and the too often political world of the church.

So be humble and be willing to authentically listen and engage with others who think differently than you, even theologically and even if they are in the same theological tradition. Set aside arrogant attitudes masked with false humility. With that, the smell of self-righteousness will disappear as well. Loving God means loving your neighbor, no matter who they are, and that must be done genuinely.

Say no to the attitudes of the Pharisees, but also say no the spirits of the Sadducees and scribes. Be humble, repent, and be willing to forgive and ask forgiveness for these types of attitudes and spirits.

Love God. Therefore, love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are much more important than any other debate or attitude out there, within Christianity and outside of Christianity.


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