Reading the Scriptures like a Pharisee

It was a disconcerting day, the day I realized that the Pharisees and I had a lot in common. In the past I had read the gospels assuming that I naturally would have known that Jesus is the Messiah. I certainly would have been among the disciples. It wasn’t even possible that I would have questioned the work of Jesus, let alone oppose him like the Pharisees did.

But as I learned more about who the Pharisees were and what motivated them, I realized the Pharisees and I had a few things in common. The Pharisees were people who took their faith and its observance seriously. They understood that what they believed and what they did mattered. They took the Scriptures seriously. 

I take my faith and its observance seriously. I think that what I believe and what I do matters. I take the Scriptures seriously. Many people I know, myself included, would have made pretty good Pharisees. The Pharisees were the good, solid church people of their time- and I mean that as a compliment.

When I realized that, it got more difficult to dismiss Pharisees as simply clueless, stubborn, obstructionist characters in the gospel. It is surprisingly easy to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. If the Pharisees, people serious about their faith, missed the mark so completely; was it possible that I, a person serious about her faith, could also miss the mark? 

Understanding more about the Pharisees made my relationship Jesus and with the gospels became more complex. My black and white reading of the gospels developed into a rich tapestry of greys.

I’ve been reading the Gospel of John with some friends over the past few weeks and the interactions between the Pharisees and Jesus in chapter 5 strike me as, among other things, a sort of cautionary tale. You can read John 5 here, to refresh your memory.

In this chapter, Jesus has healed a man on the sabbath, the Pharisees are upset  and Jesus is explaining to them who he is.  Verses 39 and 40 are what brought me up short.  Jesus says, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

The Pharisees study the Bible believing the Bible will show them the way of salvation, and yet they don’t lift their eyes off the page to see the Messiah standing right in front of them.

Don’t get me wrong, Bible study is important, really important. Yet, it is easy for us to get too wrapped up in the Bible. “The Bible says….this.” “The Bible says… that.”  We reduce our faith to only what “the Bible says”.  But the Bible is the written word that points to the living word, Jesus. (1) The Bible helps us know who Jesus was and is. The Bible tells us the story, gives us examples, shows us the way.

 But faith- faith is a relationship. Not a book to read. Not rules for living. Not principles to follow. Faith is a relationship. And we have to lift our eyes off the written page and see the living Messiah standing before us.

We need to be looking for where the Messiah is at work in the world. Where are the hungry fed, the injured and sick healed, the broken made whole? Where is the status quo over turned? Where does weakness confront power?

The Bible tells us its stories to help us recognize the work of the Messiah in the world. It gives us the hints, the clues, the nudges- the kingdom of God is like…..

So friends, we should read the Bible and read it seriously. But in our reading, let it open our eyes and our hearts. Let it teach us to look up and out and around to see where the Messiah is at work in the world.


(1) from the Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (USA).


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