Was Jesus Unloving Towards the Pharisees?
Some claim that Jesus spoke to religious leaders in ways that did not reflect the love of the cross. In his climatic encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Jesus’ words were undeniably harsh. He calls the Pharisees “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “snakes” and “a brood of vipers” (Mt 23:13, 15, 16,17, 19, 23, 26, 27, 29, 33). He claims that they are “full of greed and self-indulgence” (v. 25) and are “like whitewashed tombs” (v. 27), and as such, Jesus wonders how these leaders will “escape being condemned to hell” (v. 33). But does such harsh speech indicate that Jesus “does not absolutize loving one’s enemies,” as some claim?
If Jesus was simply hurling insults at these people to ridicule them, embarrass them, or to make himself look superior to them, he indeed would have been unloving. But it is totally out of character to suppose this to be Jesus’ motivation. I would suggest that it is far more plausible to understand Jesus’ extreme language to be illustrating the biblical mandate to speak “the truth in love” (Eph 4:15, cf. 25). If the Pharisees were in fact as steeped in spiritual darkness as Jesus claims, then Jesus’ offensive language can be understood as a desperate, love-motivated attempt to shock them into realizing their dire situation, not unlike a parent who screams to get their child’s attention to keep them from danger.
Nor is it difficult to understand why Jesus needed to resort to such extreme language. The sick who know they need a physician are much closer to healing than those who imagine they do not (Mk 2:17). While Jesus could interact with those who on some level were aware of their sickness in a warm and healing way – which is why the worst of sinners wanted to fellowship with him (Lk 5:30; 7:34; 15:1) – this approach had no hope of working toward those who were afflicted with the self-righteous delusion that they had no need for this physician. These “hypocrites” had already judged Jesus’ warm interactions with sinners to be a sign of moral weakness and compromise. Had Jesus adopted this approach to them, he would have been dismissed without a hearing. The only hope of possibly waking up these “blind guides” to their desperate spiritual condition was to hold a mirror up to their faces by turning the harsh judgmental language they directed toward others back on themselves. And harsh as it sounds, it was motivated by love.
At the same time, it is significant that Jesus directed this offensive language against the Pharisees in front of “crowds” (Mt 23:1), for it suggests that this language was used not only out of love for the Pharisees, but also out of love for those who had come under, or who might come under, their destructive influence. These were the common people on whose shoulders the Pharisees had placed “heavy, cumbersome loads” while being unwilling “to lift a finger to move them” (v. 4). It seems evident that Jesus’ public hypocrisy-exposing speech was motivated by a love that wanted to save these people as much as it was motivated by a desire to save the Pharisees.
Finally, the closing of Jesus’ speech reveals that, behind all the harsh rhetoric he had just used was a broken-hearted parent. For Jesus ends by crying out,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate (vv. 37-8).
Note that Jesus speaks the truth that Jerusalem had rejected and killed God’s messengers in the past, and just prior to this, he had grouped the Pharisees in with this murderous tradition (vss. 34-6). Yet, reflecting the heart of the Father, Jesus does not follow this declaration up by expressing rage: he follows it up with an expression of profound sorrow. His only desire has always been to gather his children and protect them, like a hen does its chicks. Yet they “were not willing.”
It is this heart that we must see behind Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees. And in this light it becomes clear that Jesus was not qualifying his instruction to love enemies by harshly rebuking the Pharisees: he was illustrating it. And if a further demonstration of the loving nature of this speech is necessary, consider that, as was true of his cleansing of the Temple, this confrontation with the Pharisees moved Jesus one step closer to his eventual arrest and crucifixion, where he would freely offer up his life for all sinners– including the Pharisees!