Forming Faith Blog

Defending the Pharisees (January 31, 2021)

Ripe wheat standing in a field. The Pharisees objected when the disciples picked grain for themselves on the Sabbath.

We continue journeying through the season of Epiphany, exploring who Jesus is in the Gospel of Luke. Last week, we heard Jesus call his first disciples. In the space between then and now, Jesus has done more healing, teaching, and calling another disciple. Now, some Pharisees come to challenge Jesus and his disciples about the Sabbath, giving Jesus another opportunity to teach us who he is.

Who Are the Pharisees?

Simply put, the Pharisees were a popular group within Judaism at that time who focused on teaching and following Scripture over sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. Their primary opponents, the Sadducees, instead focused on temple worship. These were often—unsurprisingly—priests. They were treated well by the Roman occupiers and so were more supportive of Roman rule. The Pharisees opposed Roman rule, one reason for which was the Romans did not follow the Torah. Following the Torah was of the utmost importance. I once learned (but can’t find anything to support this right now) that this focus on Torah observance is a result of the Babylonian exile, which was a punishment for the people not following the Torah.


It might be surprising to some Christians that there were many similarities between the Pharisees and Rabbi Jesus. Both focused on the “common people,” taught from Scripture, and accepted the Psalms and prophets as Scripture. Sadducees limited Scripture to just the first five books of the Bible, the written Torah. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, the life in the world to come, and God’s promise of a messiah.


Described like that, why do the Gospel writers treat the Pharisees as villains in Jesus’ story? Just as siblings are expected to fight, the closeness of the Pharisees to Jesus set them up for conflict. They agreed on many of the same assumptions and occupied the same “territory,” both geographically and theologically.

Fence around the Torah

One of the hallmarks of the Pharisees was the idea of building a “fence around the Torah” (which remains a concept in many modern Jewish traditions). The analogy is that we don’t want anyone to fall off a balcony (break a Torah commandment). That’s bad. So, we build a barrier/fence a distance away from the drop-off. That way, if someone were to carelessly stumble near the edge, they bump into the barrier, rather than fall off. A possible example is that the commandment is to not murder. So, the teachers might tell people they shouldn’t stay angry at a person, as anger might lead to murder (sounds familiar).

Sabbath Commandments

The Sabbath was considered very important in the Torah. It made the top 10 commandments, even. The punishments set in Scripture for Sabbath violations were quite severe, and it was stated as one of the reasons for God’s righteous anger that sent the people into exile. But the injunction not to “work” was quite broad, so it needed interpretation—and a fence. Interpreting and applying Scripture to everyday life was something the Pharisees did.


The Pharisees, along with basically every other group, got wrapped up in their interpretations, their personal holiness, and their personal power. Jesus challenged all of that and more. They were close to the kingdom but were set in their own ways. They were threatened by Jesus, and so they fought him.

The Offenses

In today’s double episode, the Pharisees took objection to two different actions: the disciples gathering grain for themselves and Jesus healing a man. Gathering grain was a farming action, and farming was work, so you shouldn’t gather grain on the Sabbath (after all, where is the line between gathering some for yourself and farming work?). I have a less clear idea of why healing would be considered work, as it was a divine miracle and not human work. With the healing, Jesus seems to be invoking the principle of pikuach nefesh, which basically means that it is permissible (perhaps obligatory) to break almost any commandment to save a life. Jesus seems to have expanded that to permit actions (or at least miracles) that were life-giving, not just life-saving.

The Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus did not counter the importance of observing the Sabbath, what he did was challenge the Pharisees’ specific interpretations. They were placing the rules above all else, while Jesus placed himself over the rules as Lord of the Sabbath (in Mark he even said that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath).   


The Pharisees are a portion of the ancestors of modern rabbinic Judaism. So, it is not only important to avoid setting up “straw men” for Jesus to knock down, but we also need to fight against any anti-Jewish thoughts. We also need to fight against the temptation to put our own interpretations, traditions, and rules too high. We must not get too set in our ways to follow where Jesus leads us.

Free Resource

On the topic of observing the Sabbath, the free activity I’m offering this week is an active, fun game to remind ourselves of the difference between work and sabbath. “Sabbath, Work” is an adaptation of Red Light, Green Light. It’s found in our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) curriculum but can be adapted to different ages and levels of physical ability.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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