Every story needs a good villain. When we read the gospels, it is easy to cast the Pharisees in that role. After all, it seems they were always in Jesus’ grill, bucking up against his efforts to bring a much needed rebrand to religion of the day. But, exactly who were the Pharisees, and what does the Bible really tell us about Jesus’ view and relationship with them? Perhaps knowing the answers to these questions can help us have a healthier approach to the people we encounter in our lives today.

The Pharisees were a major religious sect among many in ancient Israel. During the days of Jesus, they held substantial influence over social and political affairs. Some of the beliefs and practices that set them apart actually make them quite relatable and on par with most modern Christians. Pharisees believed in the importance of living out holiness and righteousness in everyday life, and they, unlike many other religious sects, had a strong belief in the afterlife and a general resurrection.

Our tendency is to focus on the increasing conflict Jesus had with some Pharisees and scribes (who were legal scholars and not all Pharisees themselves) in the days and weeks leading up to the crucifixion. However, a careful reading of the gospels (and other books of the New Testament) shows that Jesus’ interaction with and opinion of the Pharisees was not always negative.

There is a popular passage underscoring Jesus’ view of the Pharisees found in Luke 5. Jesus had a crowd of curious followers with him, it seemed, everywhere he went — beyond the official twelve apostles we are most aware of. Some disciples of the Pharisees were among them, and they show up regularly asking questions as they tried to understand why Jesus did and said certain things. On one occasion, Jesus was dining at a party with “sinners and tax collectors” at the house of the apostle Matthew. This decision was perplexing to the Pharisees in the group following Jesus as they saw Jesus as a respected teacher who ought to distance himself from eating with less than reputable men.

Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32

In this passage, Jesus equates the Pharisees as being “well” and “righteous.” That is hardly a rebuke against their practices and beliefs. In Jesus’ estimation, the Pharisees, generally speaking, did not require his time and attention. They were already living out the commands and expectations of God. Later on in the gospels, a vocal core of Pharisees become hostile against Jesus, and Jesus lodges some sharp criticism at them. But at this stage of the story, those tensions have not yet developed.

There are other places where we see Jesus’ relationship with Pharisees that is hardly antagonistic. We find him eating at the house of a Pharisee in Luke 7:36 and again in Luke 11:37 and 14:1. Prominent Pharisees publicly spoke out on Jesus’ behalf such as Nicodemus. Gamiliel does the same for the early followers of Jesus in Acts. We see a group of Pharisees try to protect Jesus from harm in Luke 13:31. Later on in the New Testament, we see followers of Jesus who retain their association with the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), including Paul (Acts 23:6, Philippians 3:5).

As we progress through the gospels, we clearly see how a strong, influential group of Pharisees go from being curious to outright antagonistic in their relationship with Jesus. In that, we see Jesus’ criticism of their hardened hearts and lack of compassion. These men eventually conspire against Jesus to have him tried and executed on the cross, missing the fact that the very Messiah they longed for was the man they had grown to detest and fear so much. Given this, it is no wonder that we tend to see all Pharisees in the same negative light as those that sent Jesus, whom we love, to his death.

The lesson for me, and I hope for you, is to remind myself of the dangers of painting with too wide a brush when it comes to my attitude toward different groups of people. The Pharisees were not all bad people. In fact, probably most of them were men that we would find to be honorable and sincere in their pursuit of God. Yet, I have allowed the actions of some to taint my view of the whole. Do I make that same mistake with other groups in life? 

Jesus shows us time and time again how he pushes past group identity to get at the heart of individuals. I want to express that same grace, compassion and love in my own life. I hope you desire to do the same.