The Tragedy of the Pharisees: How Good People Become Enemies of God (Repost)
(Hey everyone! I am working hard getting the Sermon on the Mount book out. It is titled “The Way of Restoration: Following Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount”. In the meantime, I am reposting one of the posts in the series for you. Enjoy the sneak peak of the book to come!)
When the demon had been driven out, the man spoke. And the crowds were amazed, saying, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel!” But the Pharisees said, “He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons!” (Matthew 9:33–34)
The plot of Matthew’s gospel involves two parallel tracks, rising up alongside one another and destined to come to an explosive confrontation in the end.
The first is the ministry of Jesus as he manifests the rule of God (i.e. the kingdom of God) in the earth, and crowds flock to him for healing and deliverance. The second is the gathering of evil forces against him.
Some see the proliferation of demons in Galilee as a sign of this gathering darkness.
But in a shocking and tragic turn, it’s not the demons who come out as Jesus’s most dangerous or outspoken enemies. In fact, in any confrontation Jesus makes short work of the demons, dismissing them with a word.
(This is possible, Jesus makes clear later, because he had already “tied up the strong man” when he overcame the temptations of Satan, prince of demons, in the wilderness at the start of his ministry. To then plunder Satan’s house was not difficult.)
So no, it’s not the demons who pose a real challenge to Jesus. It’s a group of human beings. And it’s not the usual suspects, either — not the cruel and violent Romans, or the “sinners” who side with them, but a religious sect whose entire mission and identity was based on a push to attain covenantal purity and faithfulness to God.
The Pharisees cared deeply about following God. They were a populist group who were actively watching for the kingdom of God to come, for the Messiah to appear, and for God to keep his promises of forgiveness and restoration to Israel.
And they had a “plan of salvation” for their people: they would personally usher in the kingdom of God through zealous, extra-mile obedience to the law.
If the law prescribed unusually strict purity requirements for priests, the Pharisees — who were not priests — would keep them.
If the law forbade certain activities on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees would forbid activities that could lead to those activities in order to build fences and keep everyone safely away from accidental law-breaking. The Pharisees loved the Scriptures and knew them better than anyone.
They were, in other words, the good guys. They were the holiest of the holy people. They were the ones with the guts to confront Rome and call their backslidden people to a higher standard of righteousness before God.
We would applaud them.
Yet when God himself stood before them, in the person of Jesus Christ — when the kingdom they were awaiting actually came, and demonstrated itself in the trouncing of demonic powers and the manifestation of healing and redemption — they dismissed both the King and the kingdom.
More than dismissed them, in fact. They leveled a damning accusation:
He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons.
A Slow-Boiling Conflict
Conflict with the Pharisees lingers around the edges of Matthew’s gospel from the start, beginning with John the Baptist. When the Pharisees showed up to check out John’s kingdom-proclaiming baptism, John called them a “brood of vipers.”
Later, Jesus’s comments about “the hypocrites” in the Sermon on the Mount may have slyly pointed a finger at the Pharisees’ way of “doing their righteousness.” He also declared, in that Sermon, that in order to enter the kingdom one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees — something which must have seemed nearly impossible to most people.
But the primary conflict was more recent, when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s house and the Pharisees questioned his actions.
Prior to that moment, the Pharisees seemed to be cautiously checking out Jesus and his claims. But at this point, it became clear that their paths were wildly divergent. Jesus would not be an ally of the Pharisees. His salvation plan was totally unlike theirs. And he wasn’t exactly seeking their counsel about it.
Jesus was charging full steam ahead, teaching, proclaiming the kingdom, and doing acts of power — “with authority,” as the gospels constantly point out.
So the Pharisees had a choice. They could recognize God in the works and words of Jesus, and they could respond by laying down their own plans and falling in with God’s kingdom initiative.
Or they could deny that God had anything to do with Jesus, insist that their way was God’s way, and find some other explanation for the incredible things Jesus was able to do.
They found one.
“He does it by the ruler of the demons.”
The Ruler of the Demons
Although most of us are very familiar with the idea of an evil power opposed to God, the Bible is surprisingly slow and somewhat opaque in its development of “Satan.” Our understanding is pieced together by connecting dots from one story and passage to another — from a talking serpent in paradise to a strange lament for a fallen angelic being in Isaiah and Ezekiel; from Job’s accuser in the book of Job to the demonic powers behind the idols Israel chose to worship.
It’s not always clear how these dots should be connected, and there are plenty of gaps in the picture they create.
Nevertheless, by Jesus’ time a sole figure has come out of the shadows clearly enough to be seen and named. Satan, a proper name developed from “the satan” (meaning adversary or accuser in Hebrew), is also called “the devil” (literally the slanderer) and here, “the ruler of the demons.”
In the Bible’s conception of invisible spiritual “powers and principalities” ruling over the world, Satan seems to be the chief.
In Jesus’s story, Satan is the primary opponent. He is the invisible power behind Rome, behind Judas, behind sin, and behind suffering. He is powerful and opposed to God. He quotes Scripture with abandon, twisting God’s words in a way that clearly connects him to the serpent in the garden. He uses people, having — as the Eden story makes clear — gained his authority in the earth by usurping theirs in the first place.
The Pharisees see Jesus as embodying the devil’s work in the world. They accuse him of being empowered by Satan and leading the people into deception and captivity, away from God and from freedom.
And in doing so, they set up a frightening binary: Either their theory is right, and Jesus is empowered by Satan; or it is wrong, and they are.
The Summons to Surrender
Jesus’s proclamation that “the kingdom is at hand” is a summons to surrender. It is God’s great interruption. Whatever our plans were, however we thought we were going to work our way back to God, he has broken in and come early, and all we can do now is receive him.
To do this we must do what (most of) the Pharisees didn’t: look at Jesus, acknowledge that God is at work in him, and then simply surrender our efforts and welcome the grace of God into our lives.
There is no other choice. The kingdom is already here; we can’t bring it or earn it or make it happen or ascend to it. It’s just here; we can open our hands and accept it, just as we are, or we can turn away and continue on with our own efforts — to be good enough, or “spiritual” enough, or smart enough, or comfortable enough.
We can stuff our ears with cotton, attribute Jesus’ power to “something else” — the devil, or mythology, or ancient human ignorance, or a pantheistic universe — and carry on with our lives the way we want to live them.
But when we do the latter, we hand our authority over to Satan just like Adam and Eve did. Just like the Pharisees did. We were created to rule the earth under the authority of the kingdom of God. When we refuse to enter the kingdom and “submit ourselves to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:3), Satan usurps our rule.
That’s the tragedy of the Pharisees — that these proud and zealous men, with their glorious vision for a messianic kingdom, were coopted and manipulated by the very power they thought they were opposing.
In the story Matthew tells, this moment in Matthew 9:34 is a turning point. From now on, the Pharisees are not just cautious seekers. They are enemies. They have considered the evidence and made their choice: from now on, they will oppose the kingdom of God.
Two millennia later, it’s easy for us to vilify the Pharisees. But we have to make the same choice: to submit ourselves to what God is doing, to receive his grace and righteousness and kingdom rule … or not.
And if we don’t, we let ourselves be used by another power, one who is unscrupulous, manipulative, and empowered by our pride.
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This is Part 134 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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