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Progressing Past the Paradigm of the Pharisees

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

"...and even after all this, they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him" (Mosiah 3:9).

I wonder how it was possible for the ruling Jews to consider Jesus to be a mere man, when everything he did and taught testified that he was more.

I think it was because their self concept was tied up in a distorted system for evaluating righteousness. And when Jesus undermined that system, it called their righteousness into question.

The Pharisees thought goodness could be measured by the degree of a person's outward conformance to a multitude of performances and prohibitions. I suspect they also believed that favor with God was something you earned by strict observance of the law. The stricter you were, the more you pleased God and the more you could expect His blessings. But Jesus didn't comply with that artificial system. Instead, he manifestly loved and surrounded himself by the "unworthy" and healed people who didn't deserve it -- on the Sabbath no less! He spoke with authority and daily demonstrated spiritual power that could not be denied. But if his power was from God, then all their assumptions about earning blessings by beyond-the-mark obedience were wrong. Their system was fundamentally flawed... and so were they.

They cared about being righteous, cared about it enormously. Their whole lives were devoted to actions that they defined as righteousness. One would hope that underlying all of that righteousness-seeking was a love for God. But how do you love God while misconstruing Him entirely? Can the gratitude and fear one feels for an arbitrary and vengeful deity who shows us favor be properly called love? I'm reminded of the Zoramites and their concept of God, to whom they attributed the "holiness" of electing them to "be saved, whilst all around [them were] elected to be cast by [His] wrath down to hell" (Alma 31:717). I don't think there's anything loving about the worship one offers to such a being.

It suddenly occurs to me how unexpected and seemingly radical was Jesus' response to the query, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" (Matthew 22:36). The question wasn't sincere. It was carefully designed by the Pharisees to initiate a cross-examination in which they hoped to tear him apart. Perhaps their plan was to take whatever he answered and either prove that he didn't believe it or that in elevating that commandment, he disparaged others. Perhaps they had prepared a compelling argument for the greatest commandment to be keeping the Sabbath day holy and would discredit all his teachings because he "violated" the greatest commandment by healing on the Sabbath. Whatever their plans, they were trying to draw him into a legalistic argument within their faulty paradigm that mechanized goodness.

He replied from outside that paradigm. He pointed to none of the 10 commandments nor any of the mountain of regulations that had been developed to build a hedge about the Law. He identified the fundamental law upon which all commandments rest: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind." But he didn't stop there. He continued: "And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37, 39-40).

His answer did not only demolish the snare they'd set for him, it invalidated their entire system. It said that none of their pious performances was of any value if it wasn't grounded in love -- for God and for their fellows. It also meant that they were responsible to esteem wrong-doers like they esteemed themselves.

Impossible! Outrageous! They believed in a God whose love they earned by strict obedience. Jesus demonstrated a God who loved the disobedient. But if God loved the disobedient, people, they feared, would lose their fear of God, would be emboldened to disobey, would utterly perish. Jesus' doctrine, they reasoned, must be of the devil. So they reviled and eventually crucified him.

What does this mean for me?

I see echoes of the way I used to and still sometimes think in the doctrine of the Pharisees. I can even call up scripture that supports it. For example, 1 Nephi 17:35 says, "he that is righteous is favored of God." And D&C 130:21 says, "when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated."

But here's why the doctrine Jesus demonstrated is true and the paradigm of the Pharisees is false, despite the truth of those scriptures. It's because of the nature of God. He is Love (1 John 4:8). He is our devoted Father who delights to bless His children.

Yes, "there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the earth, upon which all blessings are predicated" (D&C 130:20) because if our Heavenly Father poured out all the blessings upon us that He longs to give us, they would be too much. We are unprepared for them and they would crush us. So He decreed a law that blessings be withheld until we are able to bear them. But He is not a reluctant giver, doling out scanty portions of favor to those who get His attention with their extraordinary sacrifices and devotion. Rather, He stands with arms full of blessings, eagerly watching for us to be ready for the next treasure He wants to send us. And when we're not yet ready or when He has a higher purpose and a brighter blessing for which we need to wait, He sends lesser blessings that we can bear. He paints the sky to lift our hearts. He colors the leaves in the Fall to gladden our eyes. He surrounds us with a multitude of tender mercies that are intended, if only we notice, to bear witness to us of His love and His watchful care.

It reminds me of Nephi's experience during the Lehites' eight-year sojourn in the wilderness. He suffered with hunger, thirst, fatigue and privation along with Laman and Lemuel. But while his oldest brothers perceived their wilderness experience as a curse from God, where it would have been better for them if they had died before leaving Jerusalem (1 Nephi 17:20), Nephi experienced it as an outpouring of tender mercies. He writes, "And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings" (1 Nephi 17:2).

Nephi, Laman and Lemuel waded through the same afflictions. Actually, Nephi waded through more, because his brothers kept trying to kill him. Yet, Nephi endured all the suffering and privations with confidence and grace and he grew to the point that they were no longer afflictions, while Laman and Lemuel anguished and regretted and cringed. Was it because of the difference in their understandings of God? Because Nephi perceived that God was on their side and actively blessing them all the way along their thorny path, while Laman and Lemuel thought God was angry at them and was actively cursing them?

Sadly, it seems that Laman and Lemuel couldn't comprehend God's goodness, and therefore, they couldn't receive His favor. They were themselves so vengeful and punitive (witness their behavior toward Nephi) that they assumed the same about Him and couldn't perceive His loving design in leading them through the wilderness to their promised land.

Obedience, then, is not about earning God's favor. It's about progressing spiritually in order to increasingly perceive God's goodness. King Benjamin asked, "How knoweth a man the master whom he has not served?, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?" (Mosiah 5:13). Jesus said, "This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent" (John 17:3). We have to obey Him, to get to where the law of God is written on our hearts, in order to know Him. We need to reach the point where we love goodness for its own sake, where we repent and sacrifice out of love of God, rather than out of fear of His wrath or the expectation of a gilded toilet in our eternal mansion. Otherwise, a glimpse at the depths of His mercy would rob us of our motivation; we'd be inclined to lean toward the heresy of Nehor, lifting up our heads in our iniquities and rejoicing in an expectation of redemption without repentance (Alma 1:4).

But if God is so merciful and eager to bless, why does He call us to endure periods of anguish? Why does He sometimes leave us for extended stretches wandering in mists of darkness? I believe those times, when promised blessings are temporarily withheld from the obedient, are the times when we are developing our love of goodness for its own sake. Eventually, as we hold fast and serve Him, apparently without reward, our love deepens to the point that the "mystery of godliness" (D&C 19:10) will be unfolded to our view. Could that mystery be a true understanding of His nature and the extent of His mercies? Is there significance to the Lord's tying that phrase to His teaching Martin Harris that "endless torment" does not mean torment without end (D&C 19:6)?

I know this: everything God does, including the consignment of the unrepentant to suffering, is redemptive. The experience of hell itself is designed to bring us to a determination to seek after Heaven. And He has a plan for the reclamation of even the pharisees, who considered Him a man, scourged Him and crucified Him. Of course, that plan depends upon their being willing to surrender their self-righteousness and yield to His love. But His love, unlike His torment, is endless in both quality and duration. Surely, no-one can resist that love forever.

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