May16, 2016

In my last two articles, I argued that Jesus is portrayed in Matthew's Gospel as a firm adherent of the Jewish Law while Luke presents Jesus as primarily concerned with outreach to sinners, the blind and other marginalized people.

On that basis, one might expect Matthew to be less hostile to the Pharisees - the purported great followers of the Law - than was Luke. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Matthew has Jesus launch an extended vitriolic attack on the Pharisees who had clearly set out to destroy him. Luke, while not a fan of the Pharisees, presents them in a more nuanced way.

Jesus' main attack on the Pharisees in Matthew comes in chapter 23 which, curiously, is addressed not to the Pharisees themselves, but "to the crowds and to his disciples" (23.1). The parallel account in Luke (11.37-12.12) is less hostile and is spoken directly to a Pharisee.

Matthew, it appears, is less concerned with bringing the Pharisees to repentance than with those in his own Church who might imitate their behaviour. "Nor are you to be called instructors," he has Jesus tell his listeners, "for you have one instructor, the Messiah" (23.10).

Jesus' complaints about the Pharisees in the two Gospels are similar: They do good deeds in order to be seen by others and they are hypocrites, that is, people whose conduct is self-determined, not determined by God.

For Matthew, the Pharisees directly lead people away from God by their emphasis on external behaviour and even on trivialities. They are called "descendants of those who murdered the prophets" and denounced as "You snakes, you brood of vipers" (23.31, 33).

The Pharisees themselves go so far as to mock Jesus as he dies on the cross (27.41-43).

In Luke, Jesus is not so vehement, but the Pharisees are also taken to task for being lovers of money.

However, they are not implicated, in Luke's Gospel, with Jesus' suffering and death. As well, Jesus joins the Pharisees for several meals, a sure sign of his openness to communion with them. In the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, Peter and John are defended by the Pharisee Gamaliel (5.33-39), and when Paul is hauled before the council, it is some Pharisees who say, "We find nothing wrong with this man" (23.9).

For Luke, the Pharisees are not Jesus' prime enemies, and he sees hope for their repentance. Their chief sin - and it is a big one - is that they failed to recognize the urgency of the invitation that Jesus offered them. They pay lip service to the importance of the messianic banquet; they don't realize that they are in the midst of it (14.15-24).

Luke likely sees the Pharisees as figures from time of Jesus who were not so important when he was writing his Gospel decades later. Matthew, however, sees pharisaism as an abiding reality which must be challenged.


Christians today do not have to choose between Luke's and Matthew's Gospels; both are part of the Bible and are God's inspired word. Luke's account of the Pharisees, however, does have the merit of not feeding the anti-Semitism which for many centuries was so strong in the Church.

What does all this tell us about Jesus?

It underlines that each Gospel portrays Jesus differently. The Matthean Jesus has harder edges, is more ready to denounce those who go astray. He was more Jewish than the Lukan Jesus for his insistence on the centrality of the Mosaic Law and his insistence that one should not only follow the Law in its externals, but also develop the inner dispositions that the Law implies.


Luke, in contrast, presents Jesus as the one who always holds a door open to conversion. His community is a broad one; no one is to be excluded.

Jesus has a special place for sinners, the poor, the sick and those otherwise marginalized, and he expects his followers to reach out in similar fashion. In particular, he sees the love of money as the root of evil, as the barrier to recognizing God's presence in our midst.

The point is not to choose one picture of Jesus over the others, but to see him from different perspectives. No one Gospel portrayal is complete in itself. Jesus outstrips our limited viewpoints. But by learning who he is through the eyes of the four evangelists, one can come to a greater knowledge of who Jesus is.