That was the warning Jesus Christ gave to His disciples in the twelfth chapter of Luke. Why did He single out the Pharisees for special attention? What was so bad about their ''leaven''? And why devote so much space in the four Gospels to this relatively small religious group? Was all this written merely to satisfy the curiosity of New Testament history buffs? Or does it have important significance for today's Christian?
A story usually has a central figure and this one is no exception. Our particular man of the hour is a person of some distinction. For lack of a better name, we'll call him Joe Pharisee. Now when it comes to religion, Joe is no ordinary run-of-the-mill religionist. And he's acutely aware of this fact. To make matters worse, Joe knows all the right ways to advertise his distinctive qualities. Joe is not all that different from a lot of people in this respect. In fact, his behavior follows a time-honored tradition spoken of in the eighteenth chapter of Luke. Joe's prototype way back then was also a unique individual — at least in his own eyes. Notice his superspiritual prayer in verse 11: "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican." Today we'd probably suspect that Joe's spiritual ancestor was a wee bit pompous. But our friend Joe knows this too. So he's not about to make the same blatant mistake — at least outwardly. Joe goes about his trumpet-blowing in a much more subtle manner. He'd never stoop to making such an obvious comparison between himself and some miserable sinner. Instead, he uses a much more devious form of expression, such as: "Did you hear about old Bill Publican? Well, I think you ought to know he has a drinking problem." Joe has learned an important lesson. Using this indirect method of condemning someone else, his own relative worth and importance grows accordingly... or at least so he thinks.
The Power of Ritual
But Joe Pharisee doesn't stop with spiritual one-upmanship. He has another device to reinforce his self-esteem. It's called Religious Ritual. Again in the eighteenth chapter of Luke, Joe's prototype is quoted as saying: "I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (verse 12). Undoubtedly he was very fastidious in his prayer habits as well. Now none of these things are wrong in themselves, but the way Joe's prototype self-righteously parades them about is certainly suspect. Joe's predecessor allowed prayer, fasting and tithing to become ends in themselves. Instead of viewing them as a means to accomplish some desired end, they took on the aura of a talisman, a fetish, or a string of rosary beads. But Joe fervently believes that this type of religious exercise will stand him in good stead with God. He approaches each of these activities with a certain amount of inner formalism and fear. Joe doesn't really trust in God, but rather in his self-imposed ritual. This type of religious hypocrisy wouldn't be too much of a problem if it were confined to Joe Pharisee's private life. Unfortunately, the "leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1) spreads out a lot further. Joe not only fools himself into thinking he's super-righteous, but a lot of other people as well. And sooner or later plain old Joe turns into Dr. Joseph Pharisee, or Joseph Pharisee, D. O. He's no longer the solitary figure that diligently did his daily laps around the beads. Now he has power and prestige — especially in the realm of spiritual matters. Dr. Pharisee feels he has a special mission in life. He can now impose his form of worship on others. There's nothing really fancy about how he does this. He simply insists that his statutes and judgments are binding on the rest of his congregation. Dr. Pharisee might emphasize a number of rigorous physical requirements concerning what one should or should not do. Lest anyone take these injunctions too lightly, he quickly follows up with dire warnings about the consequences of failure to observe these rituals. The result of this shock treatment is duly "rewarding." His people are so mesmerized, pulverized and traumatized that they are utterly stifled by "fear religion."
Appearance Is What Counts
Using this tried and true approach, Dr. Pharisee is gradually able to transform his flock into dyed-in-the-wool "gnat strainers" (Matt. 23:24). Their attention is drawn to such "weighty" matters as hair styles, dress codes, jewelry, how much one can drink, and so forth. Religion becomes the art of putting one's best spiritual foot forward, of saying the right "spiritual" words that will be sure to rightly "edify" the listener. Everybody in Dr. Pharisee's church is out to prove his or her spirituality, lest they be branded a heretic, profligate, or spiritual ne'er-do-well. In this uptight atmosphere, Dr. Pharisee's people soon begin laboring under many spiritual upsets, traumas, personal doubts and fears. Subjectively and emotionally it becomes very difficult for them to accept the simple fact that God is their friend. In their frantic desire to figuratively "tithe of their mint, cummin and anise" (Matt. 23:23), they have completely lost sight of the "weightier matters of the law." Obviously this is a pretty good working formula for Dr. Pharisee to follow. It gives him a deep-seated feeling of Power — with a capital "P." Unfortunately, every now and then someone comes along and exposes this spiritual con game for what it is. Jesus Christ was onto it from the beginning. Notice what He said about it in Matthew 23:4: "For they [the scribes and Pharisees] bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers."
Christ also realized that these backbreaking spiritual burdens were severely limiting people's chances of entering God's Kingdom. That's why He took the Pharisees of His day to task, because they shut up the kingdom of heaven against men, for they neither went in themselves, nor allowed them that were entering to go in (Matt. 23:13). However, all of this is usually lost on our Dr. Pharisee. He has more important things to worry about. If he is going to maintain his leadership over the flock, then he thinks he has to hobnob with the people that count; namely, other Dr. Pharisees. That's why those "uppermost rooms," "chief seats" and respectful salutations (Matt. 23:6-7) are like heady wine to him. It's all a part of the whitened-sepulchre, clean-cup-and-platter routine that Christ vividly described in Matthew 23:25-27. Yet for all his power and prestige, Dr. Pharisee seems strangely unable to find the time or energy to actually serve his fellowman. He mentally assumes his position of leadership allows him to be an overlord as well. He is loathe to accept Jesus Christ's definition of leadership as found in Matthew 23:10-12: "Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." Humility and service is certainly not one of his long suits. When the chips are down or opportunities for such service arise, he usually bails out like a rat on a sinking ship. (Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates his modus operandi.) And deep down, Dr. Pharisee may not realize he's not man enough to act like a human being around his flock, so he does the next best thing. He hides behind ceremony and ritual. Occasionally he may grant some poor unfortunate the opportunity to ascend the steps of his ivory tower. But woe to anyone who would dare try to puncture his imposing facade. That is a big bad no-no in Dr. Pharisee's book. Any communication that takes place between Dr. Joseph Pharisee and one of his flock has to be done on a teacher-to-pupil basis. None of that direct man-to-man stuff. Why, that would destroy his image! Any attempt at this type of dialogue is usually met with the automatic response: "Who are you to tell me that?" or "Who do you think you are?" (See John 9:34.) Dr. Pharisee also does not like anyone to question his actions. Nicodemus ran into this type of roadblock. On one occasion he questioned the wisdom of a particular course of action the Sanhedrin had decided upon (John 7:50, 51). But he quickly got the royal putdown, and that ended any further discussion of the matter (verses 52-53). For the same reason, Jesus Christ was constantly on the receiving end of the Pharisees' bitterness, venom and invective. Unlike Christ, they had no heart for the human race and couldn't stomach anyone who would upset their cherished beliefs and man-made doctrines. Nor were they happy about the fact that Jesus Christ challenged their flock to think instead of continuing on with the endless ritual of "knee-jerk" religion.
A Warning for Us
Because of the "leaven" in their hearts and minds, the Pharisees eventually conspired to have the Son of God put to death. Perhaps this one act more than all others ought to remind us of the lethal power of religious hypocrisy. Let's make sure that we don't allow our minds and hearts to be filled with the "leaven of the Pharisees." book.