Not because they were religious. Kevin DeYoung has done a great job of pointing out that Jesus himself was very religious.
Not because they loved to study Scripture. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). In other words, they didn’t study hard enough.
Not because their theology was wrong. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3).
Not even because they tried to obey the Law down to small details. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Notice he doesn’t say “God doesn’t care about you tithing out of your spice rack.”
Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees wasn’t primarily with their actions, but their heart. They studied the Scriptures, but missed the point, even when the Point was standing right in front of them. Their doctrine was good in theory, but it only went skin deep– they believed the Law’s verdict about others, but not about themselves. They were hypocrites: eager to point out others’ sin but unwilling to acknowledge their own; patting themselves on the back for little details while missing the point entirely. It wasn’t that they took theology too seriously; they didn’t take it seriously enough!
It’s common to hear things like “Jesus got along fine with tax collectors and prostitutes; it was the religious people he had trouble with.” Actually that’s half true. Jesus got along fine with sinners— religious ones and irreligious ones. He still does. He had trouble with those– religious and irreligious– who couldn’t manage to see themselves in that category. He still does.
Two points of application:
- No fair calling everyone to your right a Pharisee. Jesus never said they were too conservative!
- Read through Matthew 23 and see how much of it hits home. Ouch.