The Pharisees and Jesus – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

The political debates continue. There is one party that consistently receives bad press, sometimes unfairly. The Pharisees. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were not inherently bad or insincere people. Quite to the contrary, they were exceedingly devout, earnest, righteous Jews – convinced they were righteous and right – and they practiced their faith as if their life and the life of generations to come depended on it. The Pharisees were constitutionalists. And their constitution was the Law of Moses, both the written Law and a second, the oral Law, believed to also derive from Moses. This second Law had come out of their long period of exodus, when they were exiled from their land and their Temple worship, having to make all kinds of principled decisions and practices in a foreign place. This oral Law is what the Gospel according to Mark calls “the Sayings of the Fathers,” which were intended to be a “fence for the Law,” guarding it against violation.

Pharisees were rigorous in their observance of the Sabbath and feast days, of tithing, of dietary practices. They believed that bad things happened to bad people; they believed in angels and archangels, in the bodily resurrection of the dead, in the coming of a Messiah and the ingathering of God’s faithful at the end of time. Pharisees were virtuous in their single-minded devotion to God. Every day they devoted eight hours to study and meditation on the Law, another eight hours to work for their family’s survival, and another eight hours for rest. They had a very clear rule of life, and their witness was both popular and compelling, as is often true with very conservative movements. When Jesus began his public ministry he was nearly 30 years old, quite an elderly man in first-century Palestine. He most likely had practiced his life as Pharisee. Given his beliefs, and given that he was not a priest, he was certainly not a Sadducee. And given how much Jesus enjoyed dinner parties and the company of women, he was certainly not an Essene, which was a very rigorous Jewish monastic community in the desert. (Perhaps his cousin, John the Baptist, was an Essene.)

If indeed Jesus had been a Pharisee, this gives us some insight into the Gospel lesson appointed for this evening: why Jesus would be invited to and would accept this dinner invitation and others to a Pharisee’s table, and why the interaction is quite affable. Jesus does not wash his hands before the meal, and his Pharisee host expresses amazement, not scorn or judgment.

Now just a word about handwashing. I was taught by my mother to always wash my hands before eating, and I’ll bet I’m not here alone in that. But that was about physical hygiene. The Pharisees’ practice of washing hands before a meal – and oftentimes between courses in the meal, and after the meal – also had to do with a kind of hygiene, but this was spiritual hygiene so that one remained pure and not defiled. And spiritually soiled you would likely be having come from a marketplace or from a crowd of people, were you to have unwittingly touched any unclean person or thing. You couldn’t be too safe. Before a meal, Pharisees, as a matter of principle, would have at least washed their hands, immersing them up to the elbow before eating, if not having bathed completely. Doing so would prevent ritual impurity from being transferred from their hands to their food, rendering the food impure, which would then defile them personally.

An ever-higher level of outward purity was the lens through which they saw life. If indeed Jesus had been raised as a Pharisee, this would explain his access to Pharisees, his insight into their practices, the welcome and measure of support he found from at least some in the Pharisaic community, and his utter exasperation at their missing the point of it all. Jesus decries the Pharisees’ keeping up appearances, meanwhile their inattentiveness to what was going on inside their souls – their arrogance, their damning judgment of those not like them, their greed, their indifference to the poor and needy. They are more concerned with external piety and their reputation for holiness than for justice and mercy. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hopelessly overwhelming people with impossible-to-keep laws, living in the past and not present, meanwhile missing the point of it all. Jesus ends up calling the Pharisees heartless legalists and hypocrites. The Greek hypokritēs means an actor, and the name “Pharisee” came to mean someone who is over-scrupulous and casuistic, which was particularly exasperating to Jesus.

The Pharisees knew very well the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s straight from the Law: the Book of Leviticus. The Pharisee would say, I do love my neighbor. This (pure) person here on my right, this (pure) person here on my left I love. Too little love, says Jesus. Everyone is your neighbor. We are indeed a chosen people, but chosen not to exclude people in God’s defense but to love people on God’s behalf. All people. Everyone is a neighbor. Everyone belongs. Jesus trumps the Pharisees’ preoccupation with purity with a call to mercy. Jesus and his followers intentionally and indiscriminately associate with those branded as the most notorious of sinners – the shunned, sometimes “invisible people,” ranging from prostitutes, tax collectors and shepherds, to women who were “ritually unclean” because of childbirth or their monthly period, to people born of a different race, of a different type, of a different religion. Jesus and his followers eat with them, touch them, even sleep under the roofs of their houses, in every way identifying with them. Jesus sees everyone as “children of God.”
We could say, there ends the story. The Pharisaic party eventually dies out. It’s significant, though, that this and other accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees were remembered, and they found their way into the canon of Scripture. Why? Surely not because these stories give a running account of Jesus’ interaction with various people – those who revered him and those scorned and entrapped him. It is that, but more importantly the Pharisees’ legacy easily lives on, most dangerously among people who are pious and principled, thems like us.

Many of the Pharisees’ practices of piety would seem terribly antiquated, maybe repugnant, to us; however the symbolic act of handwashing may still be rife with meaning. And by that, I mean the temptation to wash my hands, for you to wash your hands of other people, people with whom we are in disagreement, people with whom we are in principled disagreement about their principles, to the point where we could shun them or curse them. It’s to move beyond a disagreement of someone’s principles, or preferences, or practices, to a cursing or condemning of them as a person. It’s to cross a line to defame the essence of a person with whom we are in principled disagreement. I find the language of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi so compelling when describing those who had imprisoned them for so many, many years. Both Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi call their captors their “teachers” and their “neighbors,” all-the-while disagreeing with their actions, but not desecrating the dignity of their persons.

So we hear Jesus call us to bless and not curse, and St. Paul, the sometime-Pharisee, says the same. The act of cursing, of washing our hands of another is estranging. It not only separates us from this other person; it separates us from God. If God is at the center, we want to be moving inward to that center. It’s like spokes on a wheel: as we come closer to the center, we come closer to others, who are also bound toward that center. And that is the point of it for all eternity: Jesus’ intention of gathering around himself the children of God – all of us – from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Here is a most radical practice during a time of political turbulence in our own country and in so many troubled places around our world. Pray for your enemies. Pray for your enemies: people, because of their principles or preferences or practices you find abhorrent, and from whom you could so easily wash your hands and curse. Pray for your enemies. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” It is a tall order, to pray in such a way, but it is co-operating with what Jesus gave his life, praying for one another on earth as it shall be in heaven. Pray for your enemies. Bless, do not curse them. Pray for your enemies. If you were to ask, where to start? Start with three. Pray for three enemies. How long? Pray until you begin to sense the ice melting in your soul, the beginning of the flow of compassion. Keep it up. Love will come. Love will surely come.


[1] This according to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. in The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, (Doubleday, 1981), p. 581.

[1] The Order of Carmelites – – on Luke 11:37-41.

[1]The New Testament scholar, Raymond E. Brown, S.S., states that most frequently Jesus has been identified as a Pharisee.  See An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997), p. 80.  Brown quotes H. Falk in Jesus the Pharisee (Paulist, 1985), who sees Jesus as a Pharisee of the Hillel persuasion, bitterly opposed by other Pharisees of the Shammai persuasion.

[1] Luke 7:36; 14:1.

[1] Leviticus 11:13.

[1] Raymond Brown writes that the Acts of the Apostles do not mention the Pharisees as opposed to the followers of Jesus; and has Gamaliel the Pharisee advocating tolerance for them (22:3).  Offering examples of other movements that failed, Gamaliel summarizes the situation, “If this work is from human beings, it will fail; if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow it.” Gamaliel’s advice carries the day.  Although the apostles are beaten, they are released; and tacitly the Sanhedrin adopts the policy of leaving them alone as they continue every day to preach Christ publicly and privately (Luke 5:42).  Acts 22:3 presents Paul as having studied with this great teacher of the Law (Gamaliel) who is depicted here as a fair-minded man.  Later Acts 23:6-9 has the Pharisees supporting tolerance for Paul over and against the Sadducees. (Brown, p. 293)  And it was Pharisees who warned Jesus about Herod’s desire to kill him (Luke 13:31).

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., in Meeting St. Luke today; Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message (Loyola Press, 2009), p. 39.

[1] Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:29.

[1] Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14.

[1] Revelation 5:9.

[1] Quoted from The SSJE Rule of Life, chapter 25: “The Practice of Intercession”

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  1. marta engdahl on September 27, 2018 at 22:42

    Love one’s enemies?. . . . It seems like a tall order. And, it might take forever. However, we may have “forever”, in this life and the next. It will not change the other, but it will change us and that is a blessing. It may take a long time, but if we have a long time, how better to fill our days. And, if we don’t have forever, how better to fill our days? The change in us must please God, and that is enough. In changing us, we may then have a pleasing eternity. Praise God.

  2. James Rowland on September 24, 2018 at 16:17

    I am absolutely awestruck! John, I hear you so copletely! It’s as if I myself wrote your post. Rhode, your response is the voice crying out deep inside me! Br. Curtis, you wrote this astounding sermon 6 years ago and I have copied it into my book of SSJE sermons I have started keeping. I need to read your words again and again. I do look with expectation for “a sense of the ice melting in my soul”. Thanks be to God!

  3. Kathy on July 28, 2016 at 16:13

    We receive and create rules to thrive and survive within our cultural context. In times of urgency and confused we rely on our rules to make quick decisions. But we grow attached to our rules and don’t know what to do when matters fall outside of them, causing uncomfortable confusion on new ground. Then what to do becomes a matter of soul searching.

  4. John David Spangler on July 7, 2016 at 06:27

    A question of immediate importance is how to classify James Dodson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Eric Metaxas, and Robert Jeffress. I do not know them, so they are not personal enemies, but they are in my view enemies of Christianity. They profess and call themselves Christians, yet they are quoted as follows in the op-ed piece, “The Theology of Donald Trump” by Peter Wehner, “The New York Times”, July 5, 2016: Dodson,”Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.”; Falwell, “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation.”; Metaxas, Christians “must” vote for him,”the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.”; Jeffress, “any Christian who would sit at home and not vote for the Republican nominee” is “motivated by pride rather than principle.”. Their support is for man who seeks power for himself. A man who; “shows contempt for those he precieves to be weak and vulnerabl— ‘losers’in his vernacular”, includng “P.O.W.s, people with disbalities those he deems physically unattractive and those he considers politically powerless”;”disdains compassion and empathy”; and “bullies and threatens people people he believes are obstacles to his ambitiions.”. I am taught to see Christ in them and in Donald. How can I? The best that I can do is to pray for them that they will “go and sin no more”. Brothers, friends, Help!

  5. Faith Turner on July 6, 2016 at 18:51

    I think the Pharisees were on to something which did not get medical attention until Dr. Lister in the late 1800’s. However, the host was rude to Jesus. I am sure Jesus knew that a lot of the people at that table were hypocrites, who spent time doing rituals instead of loving others I am glad Jesus spoke up, but I still wash my hands before eating. I know that I need to love others who are not just like me, but I don’t always do it. I will work on not being like a hypocrite with God and Jesus’ help!

  6. Rhode on July 5, 2016 at 08:37

    Prayer works. If, not to change the enemy but to change our hearts towards our enemy. It is harder when our enemies are our own family, and our church family. My husband is Jewish and anti-semitic undercurrents still flow …sad and surprisingly, in my own sweet New England Episcopal church community. I have wept with my Rector. We have to be prayerfully aware, especially now, how hard evil is working to undermine and destroy our love for God and the good that love is capable of doing by anger and resentment (our real enemies).

  7. Maida Broudo on July 5, 2016 at 06:44

    I love this-

    I listen on a rainy train ride after the 4th of July weekend; exactly the words to hear this morning- it does feel like a tall order – to love someone who is out right mean and rude to me. But in praying for them ( not so hard) I see their vulnerability in neon flashing lights – and it makes it easier to love someone who is vulnerable.

    Amen Brother Curtis!

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  9. anders on November 13, 2015 at 15:00

    As a child, I was confused about the Pharisees. How could they want to kill Jesus when they were as pious like those around me? The Pharisee streak is strong among us; self-righteousness keeps people separated into convenient “uses” and “thems”. I am praying for those who shamed me so strongly as a child out of their equally strong good intentions. To them I say I am one of you, but I am also one of those “thems.” In a world that needs oneness, l’ll continue to struggle to either find or create it in the church.

  10. Margo on November 8, 2015 at 05:34

    I really needed to hear this today and probably every day! Thank you Br. Curtis. Margo

  11. Ruth West on November 7, 2015 at 11:31

    I looked up the scripture references, and I find no
    Luke 5:42. There are only 39 verses in this chapter.

    • Reviewer on November 9, 2015 at 06:11

      Ruth, that is correct. The reference should read “Acts 5:42”.

  12. Michael on November 7, 2015 at 08:03

    We all must find our own path. Oftentimes others do not understand or agree, but we are responsibile for our choices toward others. We can control our choices not theirs. Easy to think: hard to carry out

  13. Christina on July 7, 2015 at 11:01

    Good morning Roderick: What can I say to you except that my prayers are with you. // I have four children two with whom I can talk about my faith and my journey, and the other two with whom it is a non-subject. However, that does not mean that they are not included in my prayers – they are good people in their own way but religion in any shape or form (as far as I know) does not enter into their day-to-day lives. It is their journey. They are my children – I pray for them. Blessings.

  14. Jamy Madeja on July 7, 2015 at 10:43

    “Pray for your enemy.” If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, should I not pray for my enemy’s enemy? I shall pray that whatever underlies my enemy’s worst deeds and thoughts shall be disempowered until changed for the greater good.

  15. Roderic Brawn on July 7, 2015 at 08:58

    My brother Tom is a sibling who tells me that Christianity has nothing of any interest to me. He condemns Christianity. He says Einstein, J. S. Bach, and the Dalai Llama are his spiritual guides. He continuously seizes the “high ground” in discussions with me. Frankly, I find myself feeling put-down in his presence and in any e-mails or letters in which we have contact. I have to say I often bring up what I see as inconsistencies in his behaviour. It is often his way to make me feel that my way is evil. I have to say that I know I sin, and I have made mistakes in my relationship with him. My father is elderly, and my brother has told me that after my father passes on, and the estate has been distributed, he sees no reason whatever to have any association with him. I pray that the way I have been in contact with him is fair. To say we communicate would be to drag down the term communicate. I would love to have relationship with this brother that would have us respecting the way of each other, while experiencing the wisdom of the approach of life of each of us. There seems to me to be a constant intra-family member war going on among my siblings. O Lord, that you would grant me the understanding to know I am doing what you call me to do in this relationship I pray.

    • Ruth West on July 7, 2015 at 13:29

      Roderic, I can so relate to your comments. I, too, have close family members who have turned their backs on practicing Christians.
      I am so grieved by their decisions.
      One seems more and more anti-Christian as he gains academic excellence, claiming Science as his line of defense. He was one who, in his past served on a vestry, sang in a choir, read his Bible and Prayer Book daily. He does none of that now and does not attend church. However, he is polite and respectful toward me. I will not preach to him. I greatly sympathize with you as your relationship with your brother has cooled. May God bless you. Hold fast to your love for him, as I, with God’s help, am doing. Jesus told us there would be persecution. It comes in various ways.

      • John David Spangler on September 24, 2018 at 05:52

        To-day’s word was “Bless” and the introduction to the meditation read: “Jesus calls us to bless and not curse. The act of cursing, of washing our hands of another is estranging. It not only separates us from this other person; it separates us from God.” Brother Curtis, the same question that I posed in my response on July 7, 2016 remains my problem. I do not put a curse on Donald J. Trump but my thoughts about him contain many expletives. I do not wash my hands of him, but I do want to be separated from him and his actions. The best I can do is to pray for him, that he be turned from his wickedness and be saved. Does that separate me from God? I pray not, but how are we to treat someone who, to quote from West Side Story, is “No damn Good!

        • Rhode on September 24, 2018 at 10:54

          John, I hear you. Since the beginning of history we have had people who were/are no ‘damn good’. Yet, if God struck down everyone and everything who goes against the first laws of love we would be a world of trees. What does love look like in the face of injustice, inequality, deception and violence in a world where we really do NOT love our neighbor? Jesus is still God’s answer. Blessing those we would rather smite is a Holy Spirit act we can ask for everyday. I have not because I ask not. Each time I am incensed by the actions of weird leaders or relatives I would rather ex, I have to actively still myself and remember God is and He is faithful to continuously move to support the Kingdom of His righteousness. He is patient where I am not. Love God first and deeply. Protest and vote while you have that freedom. It is your right to do so. I give thanks for your voice of passion. May we both find in ourselves ways to bless rather than curse.

          • John David Spangler on September 24, 2018 at 15:22

            Dear Rhode, plesae accept my “humble and hearty” for your response. Your thoughts will strengthen and support me in the struggle. I start my Monday and the active week by reading the reading the Metropolitan Diary in “The New York Times”. It always some positive news of random acts of kindness, of people caring about people. Reading it is most reassurring. Perhaps I am being a bit preverse, but I was reminded of the dictum — Love your enemies. Nothing anoys them more. It is not something I espouse, but it does have a tinge of wit and thus, contrary to its message, provides a relaxing touch of sardonic humor. Peace! David

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