Read the New Testament for any length of time, and you know that it’s definitely bad to be a Pharisee and Sadducee. As 21st century Christians, this seems a remarkably easy Biblical entreaty. Both Pharisees and Sadducees don’t exist as explicit religious parties as they did in the 1st Century; therefore, we couldn’t become one even if we so desired. If only following the rest of Scripture could be so easy!

Obviously, I’m setting up a strawman. Indeed, we cannot join the literal Pharisees or Sadducees, but we can move beyond a surface reading of them as literal group and get at why Christ and the New Testament authors take such an issue with how the envision following God. In our minds and in Matthew’s Gospel, they often get lumped together, “the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” but the historical reality is that they deeply disliked each other and derived their power in wildly different ways. Jesus and the early Christians became a voice that declaring that neither of these two poles of 1st Century Judaism got it right. For us as 21st Century Christians, we have to realized that the Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t the last folks to wrong in these specific ways either.

Christians get quickly conditioned to think “bad guy,” whenever we hear the word, “Pharisee,” but they’re less villains as deeply devoted but misguided followers of God. They desired to lead people in following God’s law so well and so exactly that God’s people would never end up again in exile. They looked at the state of the Jewish faith in the 1st Century and didn’t like what they saw. Herod, the Jewish King, and the Temple both went along with Roman rule. The whole faith had gotten built up around devotion to the Temple rather than a devotion to God in one’s heart and life. To respond, the Pharisees painted a picture of the faith that called for much closer adherence to God’s law, regular worship attendance and learning in local Synagogues, and fully commitment to God with all of one’s being. It was about way less Temple and way more about daily living. Jesus and the Pharisees agree about a lot of things, and their focus on local congregations and following God in one’s life is how the Jewish faith survived the fall of the Temple in 70 AD. The work of the Pharisees gave birth to modern Judaism. It’s not all bad news.

They just took it all too far. They got so focused on the letter of God’s law that they could sometimes miss the spirit of it. God does call one of honor the Sabbath, but does God really want us to leave a person unhealed or unfed as an act of devotion? God does care about how we behavior in the world. God wants us to treat people honestly, have a high standard of sexual morality, and take care of our own bodies. However, does a loving God really want us to exclude from the community those who don’t manage to live up to that standard? To me, the Pharisees, in the 1st Century iteration, lost the forest for all the trees and became self-righteous in the process. They understood God’s clear call to a specific way of living but, unlike God, had no mercy for those who couldn’t rise to it. Their devotion led them to exclude, reject, shun, and harm others.

Sadducees had power. We know way less about them than the Pharisees. They rose to high positions within the Temple hierarchy, knew the Law of Moses extremely well, denied the existence of an afterlife or spiritual beings, and generally didn’t appreciate their power being challenged. Josephus was as 1st Century Jewish aristocrat that wrote several volumes about his time that survive. He’s one of the places that we see an outside perspective on Jesus, John the Baptist, and the early church. As a high-born Jew, the Sadducees would seem a natural ally, but Josephus reports on their cruelty in putting to death those who opposed their views, such as James the brother of Christ. They had power in their society, and they exercised it for their own benefit, whole collaborating with the evil empire, the Romans.

The Pharisees were self-righteous, and the Sadducees were self-interested. John the Baptist has some harsh words for them, when he saw them coming for baptism.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10 NRSV)

He didn’t object to their membership in a particular group. As a prophet, he saw the rot in their hearts and didn’t hold back in pointing it out.

The rots of self-righteousness and self-interest infect religious hearts to this day. We still struggle with looking at people who are less religious than us and being glad that we aren’t such horrific sinners. We quickly forget Paul’s constant reminders that all sin and fall short of God’s glory. Equally, we like comfort and can all too easily do what maintains that comfort rather than answering the call from God to serve the last, the lost, and the least. Thankfully, God does have mercy for us in our self-righteousness and self-interest, but we should not too easily shake off the words of John the Baptist just because we aren’t technically Pharisees and Sadducees. Their sins are alive and well, and they can all too easily become ours.