When we read the gospels, we often give Pharisees and bad rap. There were some excellent Pharisees that came to understand Jesus’s teachings. Gamaliel is one, Nicodemus another. Paul trained as a Pharisee under the guidance of Gamaliel. Yet despite these noteworthy examples, our perception is Pharisee’s are self-righteous, exclusivist, and thoroughly confused about what is essential.
In Matthew 22:35, 36, a Pharisee asks Jesus a crucial question. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Often when Jesus spoke, He exaggerated a point to build a contrast between two essential elements. We see this happen today with political cartoons, where the chin is longer, the eyebrows bushier, the nose longer to exaggerate a point. Jesus did the same thing using word pictures.
A few verses later, in Matthew 23:23-24, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites. “You count out leaves of mint, dill, and cummin to tithe but fail to understand matters of more importance.” The emphasis is on these small matters instead of the vital things of life, such as loving your neighbor, justice, and showing concern and mercy toward others. These other items, justice, compassion, and love for others, these are the essential things, and fulfill the law.
Jesus in exaggerating the small and insignificant to emphasize the point he wanted them to understand. “You are more concerned about the law than treating those around you fairly, with love, justice, mercy and compassion.”
Back to our Pharisee in Matthew 22:35, 36, who asked Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Mark, in his Gospel, states the question slightly differently, but the point remains, “Which commandment is the first of all” (Mark 12:28)? Jesus reveals that this is not a question He takes lightly. His reply is, “The first is, Hear O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one; you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus, in his response, is quoting two verses from Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
Here is the exciting point we often miss. Mark’s Gospel points out that the Pharisee-Lawyer agrees with Jesus’s understanding of the law. “You are right Teacher; you have truly said that ‘He is one, and besides him, there are no others, and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33). Jesus returns the compliment by saying to the Pharisee, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:32, 34).
Our words and actions, what do they say about us and how close we are to the kingdom. The Pharisee and Jesus were on the same page, they saw eye to eye in this matter. How do we see it?