Summer 2012, Vol.
It’s Not Fair, You See:
A Book Essay on Pharisectomy: How to Joyfully Remove Your Inner Pharisee and other
Religiously Transmitted Diseases
(Springfield, MO: Influence Resources, 2012) 149 pages.
||Reviewed by Lois E. Olena (D.Min, 2006)
Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Jewish Studies;
D.Min. Project Coordinator; Editor, Encounter Journal
Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
Society for Pentecostal Studies
A Tour Guide for New Believers
The most unfortunate part of Peter Haas’ new book, Pharisectomy: How to Joyfully Remove Your Inner Pharisee and other Religiously Transmitted Diseases, is the title and what it represents. Get beyond that, and you have a lively guidebook to point new believers in the right direction—toward a refreshing encounter with Jesus, whose yoke is easy and burden is light, and toward a joyful experience of God’s love and grace. As a tour guide for new believers, Haas, in his humorous, honest, and personal style, acquaints his fellow travelers with how to handle the not-so-funny reality of those weird and sometimes downright mean church folks. He shows them how to know what constitutes “religious diseases” and how to avoid them.
An Answer for Cynicism
Haas also intends with this volume to provide an answer for young Christians who have been burned and are cynical about church because of ecclesial fights, legalism, pretense, and hypocrisy. He is grieved not only at their exodus from the church in droves, but that they have been edged out by Christian leaders who have all too often justified foisting off onto these vulnerable babes a motivation for obedience based on guilt, shame, fear, obligation, and threats of punishment rather than on the goodness and grace of God. He wishes instead that these wounded brothers and sisters could experience a treasured, joyful relationship with God.
As a popular-level guide, this book helps the reader identify (and admit to participation in) the church’s often baffling subculture, with its extra-biblical assumptions and priorities (xvi), in order to point out the road to recovery and spiritual health. The first step toward that health, he says, is a “Pharisectomy”—spiritual heart surgery as it were (13, 40)—to excise the aforementioned religious diseases. Contemporary Christians, Haas writes, need to admit that they are no different, individually and corporately, than the Pharisees (11); those “same pharisaical tendencies are still alive and well” in today’s believers (11), he points out. Christians have a “hidden [and] sneaky” Pharisee “lurking inside” (xxi, 20) that causes them to get lost in the same troubling and “silly” religious behaviors as these first-century hypocrites—but more on those Pharisees in a moment.
At its heart, the book is an excellent push in the right direction, refocusing the attention of believers on the “grace approach” (20) so they can obey God and serve Him out of faith and pure joy instead of obligation; so they can worship Jesus and not the church service itself; so they can understand the difference between discerning and judging; incubate their faith by godly friendships and meditation on Scripture; respond to one another authentically with “maturity, patience, and honor” (111); and commit to unity—providing a place where church can be defined as a “multiplicity of spiritual experiences” (118).
Such a place where believers truly love one another—and where they nurture a wisdom from above that is “peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits” instead of jacking themselves up with a hypocritical “form of godliness” (James 3:17)—can actually stretch them to live their lives for the lost (117). Such Christ followers will not be able to “proclaim truth outside of the context of loving friendship” (137) with their pre-Christian neighbors. They will find their identity in Christ’s love rather than in “doctrines and methods” (137). Such a church really can be “the most refreshing place on earth” (104).
And Yet a Roadblock
These things are all well and good. The problem is that my Jewish friends, who are already cynical about the Church because of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, could never get beyond the title of this book. To them, it is not enough that we all understand that “Pharisee” and “Pharisaism” are synonyms for “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” in Western culture and that no one means anything anti-Semitic by it. My rabbi friend knows the history, the literature, and the nature of first-century rabbinic debate, which Haas clearly does not.
If Haas understood these things, he would recognize how Jesus could align with and affirm the Pharisees’ teaching (Matt. 23:3a), as well as teach their truths with a new twist in an altogether new category (7:12), yet at the same time contrast with their teaching in other areas and vociferously debate with them (23:3b-33). Haas would understand that what was taking place in Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees was inter-family debate in an attempt to clean house of those to whom He was most closely aligned but who had strayed from what they themselves knew was the right way to behave. It would be like two theological seminary professors having a debate—both on the “same team” and wanting the same end, but if one sees another behaving in a hypocritical manner, that professor would need to care enough to confront.
Jesus was not diametrically opposed to the Pharisees. Their debates reflected and emerged from the remarkable diversity of rabbinic opinions in their day. The Pharisees themselves describe seven kinds of Pharisees in Aboth de R. Nathan 37.4 and warn about not being one of the six bad kinds who were “like plagues.” Even the New Testament describes an example of their not agreeing among themselves, in John 9:15-16 where they are debating the reason why the man was born blind. Such disagreement was typical rabbinic fashion for coming to a legal conclusion (halakah, “the path that one walks,” from the Hebrew verb, “to walk”). Even the process followed in Acts 15 to come to a conclusion about what to do about uncircumcised Gentile believers has a halakhic ring to it. If Haas had appreciated these things and more—about the historical context of first-century Christianity, not to mention 2,000 years of less-than-stellar Jewish-Christian interactions where the Pharisees of passages like Matthew 23 were taken to represent all the wicked and depraved Jews in the world who rejected Jesus and were therefore worthy of God’s utter rejection of them and replacement of them with the Gentile Church—he would have understood why the title of this book is offensive to Jewish readers, even Messianic ones.
I applaud Haas for confronting hypocrisy and for making a bold attempt at healing the cynicism of our day. However, he could have done just that without demonstrating such callousness to Jewish sensibilities and such disregard of New Testament truth. He could have communicated this message without contributing to the fostering of historical narratives that yield both religious falsehood and social abuse. Such a book can only serve to reinforce the same kind of Christian anti-Jewish sentiment that has so harmed Jewish-Christian relations and Jewish evangelism across the centuries. To liken the teachings of the Pharisees to a transmittable disease and to negate them across-the-board because of Jesus’ theological dealings with them is to miss the point of their role in the first century and the nature of His interaction with them.
Although Haas does note that other groups in Jesus’ day were “more legalistic and dysfunctional” (3), he does not use those groups as the example to avoid; he still makes the point that “most of Jesus’ offensive teachings were directed toward the religiously diseased” (40)—the Pharisees. One has to wonder why, then, Jesus did not spend His time confronting the faithless Sadducees (beyond His cleansing of the Temple, with which they were closely tied), murderous chief priests, or the pagan Romans and Greeks. If any groups should be avoided or criticized carte blanche for their negative example, it would have been these—not the pious Pharisees seeking to bring Judaism to the common people and who actually helped Judaism survive after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. After the Temple sacrifice ceased, the Pharisees were the ones who helped keep Judaism alive by reorienting the rituals of the Temple to the home and synagogue through tefillah, tzedakah, and mitzvot (prayer, charity, and good deeds)—all reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6—taking the place of sacrifice. Thus, one should not automatically consider the Pharisees as the ultimate bad guys, and “Pharisaism” should no more be a synonym for hypocrisy than “Christianity” simply because of the sins of its members.
I can’t help but wonder how much more moved toward the Messiah my Jewish friends would be if they experienced the “sign” they seek (1 Cor. 1:22) by way of Christians exemplifying the fruit of the Spirit—instead of hearing their sage rabbis condemned as bearers of and the epitome of religious disease.
The book does accomplish what it set out to do in terms of pointing out religious maladies to avoid and suggesting meaningful steps to remedy poor health individually and corporately. Sadly, however, it falls short of another of its goals: to help the Church not make it “hard for outsiders to understand the Gospel” (14) and to aid the Church in not being a “hostile place for skeptics or new believers” (87). This is a laudable goal and, in general, there is much here to help such a project; however, when it comes to a Jewish-friendly presentation of the Good News, this book goes directly against these goals and puts up a roadblock to Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah—particularly by its often simplistic, usually negative, unnecessary, and sometimes wrong portrayal of the Pharisees and Jesus’ relationship with them.
Such a portrayal ignores some significant, clear, and vital realities of the makeup of the New Testament body of believers. Perhaps the most puzzling oversight in Pharisectomy is that it overlooks the fact that Paul the Apostle did not give up being a Pharisee (as is assumed on page 2 of the book) but rather, toward the end of his life (Acts 23:6) says, “I am a Pharisee.” Although Haas refers to the “nameless and faceless” Pharisees (89) in his book, he seems oblivious to the reality that two-thirds of the New Testament was in fact written by a Pharisee with a name and a face. As well, the believers from among the sect of the Pharisees mentioned in Acts 15:5 were not nameless and faceless to the Early Church; they were brothers in Christ.
Pharisee Hall of Shame
In addition, Haas’ litany of criticism against the Pharisees and his comparison of their behavior to similar believers today by designating them as “modern Pharisees” parallels the demonization of this group, which he himself acknowledges has taken place for the last 2000 years (3). Directly or indirectly, Haas rails against the Pharisees for being obsessed with maintaining ceremonial purity; for their elitism (10); their participation in a false (20), lifeless (13), dead (34) religion under the “guise of protecting true spirituality” (11); for their “faulty approach to godliness” (66); for studying Scripture with “ill motives” and serving the idol of “perfect theology” so they can comfort themselves by having everything figured out (67); for being “divisive, arrogant, [and] polarizing in debating one against the other” (84-85). He assumes that the Pharisees did everything (prayer, study, observance of purity rituals) out of a self-righteous (64) and legalistic motive with a mind to gain access to heaven (23), earn God’s love (22), gain “a notch in their belts that made them feel special” (23), and attain His righteousness (20). They motivated others to serve God out of obligation “instilled through guilt or logic” (5). This entire religious interaction was a substitution for any possible “authentic relationship with God” (13). They spiritualized and idolized ritual (13), worshipping the worship service itself more than God (13).
Even Judas (John 6:70) and Peter (Matt. 16:23), whom Jesus called a “devil,” could not have been as evil as this bunch!
Pharisees Incapable of Accepting Jesus?
Finally, as if the familiar historic diatribe were not enough, Haas’ biblical interpretation is sorely lacking in certain areas. He describes circumcision as a “Jewish tradition” and refers to “self-made Jewish identities” (86) in that same context. However, it is God who initiated circumcision and gave them their identity, not they themselves.
More distressing, however, is the author’s conclusion that “God knew that the Pharisees were already incapable of accepting Jesus because He did not value their Mosaic interpretations to the same degree” (86). Incapable of accepting Jesus? How does such a statement align with the “whosoever will” clarion call of Scripture? If these Pharisees—Paul the Apostle, Nicodemus (John 3:1, 7:50, 19:39), Joseph of Arimethea (Matt. 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-52, John 19:38), and the Acts 15:5 believers—could embrace Christ, what exactly does Haas mean by incapable?
A Few Bright Spots
Haas does get some things right about the Pharisees. He acknowledges that in the first century, the Pharisees were a religious revival group of well-respected people (3) who many saw as at the “apex of spirituality.” He commends their Scripture memorization, their prayer, and fasting (3). He has done his homework about the rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel and the difference in the spectrum of stringency between Shammai’s heavier “yoke” of the Torah and the less stringent one of Hillel—whose teachings Jesus often modeled. He acknowledges the Pharisaic flavor of Jesus’ teaching (3) and that Jesus “definitely substantiated much of their theological worldviews (Matt. 23:2-3)” (3).
Haas gets it that Jesus was not disobeying Scripture about the Sabbath but disobeying “hedges” (“protective rules” that the rabbis put as a buffer between them and the “mere possibility of sin,” 83) in order to keep people from breaking the Torah. This is a refreshing break from the improper teaching that the Son of Man got to “break the Sabbath” just because of who He was! For these points, I was thankful; local church pastors need more of such insights to help them understand the first-century Hebraic world to which their Messiah came—and to incorporate proper teaching about the Pharisees into their sermons instead of continuing the historical diatribe against them.
The Need for Qualifying
What Haas does not get right in this book are these simple truths about Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees:
- Jesus didn’t always criticize the Pharisees—only when their behavior was wrong (Matt. 23:2-3);
- Jesus didn’t criticize them for being Pharisees—only for being hypocrites;
- Jesus didn’t criticize all the Pharisees, only those who were hypocritical;
- Jesus said to one Pharisee that he was “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34); so to demonize them as the epitome of evil and certainly of being “incapable” of accepting the Messiah is simply missing the point.
- Finally, Jesus’ heart of love went out to them (Mark 10:21). Indeed, He ate and drank with them and “talked Torah” with them. John 3 contains the lengthy discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus, the Pharisee “seeker” who comes to Jesus with honest questions that led to his eventual change of heart. Others even tried to save His life (Luke 13:31).
I could recommend this book if only it had communicated the truths at its heart without including this typically too-casual Christian reading of the inter-family debates between Jesus and the Pharisees recorded in the New Testament. Such a reading broadcast far and wide to Pentecostal and evangelical ministers that foists off yet more Pharisee-bashing without consideration of historical context or historical realities plainly fosters and perpetuates classical Christian anti-Semitism and puts up a roadblock for Jewish evangelism. Haas too easily brushes aside religious history, hermeneutics, and sound theology, not to mention the travesties of Christian religious bigotry, for such a reading.
Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM