The Pharisees get a bad rap. Reading through the Gospels, it is easy to picture them as the villains of the tale - conniving and hypocritical with no redeeming quality. Based on the picture we get of them in the Gospels they appear almost cartoonishly evil - the sort of characters who should be swishing around in black capes as they twirl their mustaches and laugh maniacally.
However, this caricature, while understandable, misses the full picture, and if we buy into it, we risk missing the point of Jesus’ message.
During their day, the Pharisees were considered the most devout religious group in Palestine. While other religious and political factions existed, the Pharisees were the down-to-earth, the-Torah-says-it-I-believe-it outsiders who took the Word of God seriously. They read and memorized God’s word, built synagogues and strove to follow every commandment to the letter - sometimes, quite literally.
They were, in other words, not unlike the devoutly religious people that you would encounter any church you’d visit in America today. And that is the point the Master is making when He spars with them. Jesus doesn’t condemn them for setting fire to orphanages or tying damsels to railroad tracks. He accuses them of looking down their noses, villifying those who are different and being hypocrites who use one standard to judge others and a different one for judging themselves - in other words, the same sort of behaviors we see every Sunday in the church lobby, if we care to look.
Once we realize that the Pharisees were, ultimately, not that different than ourselves we can see the Lord’s caution clearly. Jesus isn’t condemning some monstrous aberration - He is condemning the thing that all of us, if we aren’t careful, are tempted to become. The Pharisees are simply what happens when we put rules before people and forget that we must first and foremost be motivated by love. They became so focused on purity and ritual that they missed the very coming of the Messiah they believed would come, and welcomed Him with a crown of thorns rather than with their allegiance.
As you read Jesus’ pronouncements against the Pharisees, examine your own heart and ask if His criticism would apply to you as well. The thing that can save us from becoming Pharisees ourselves is to honestly examine our motives and, when needed, repent.