When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
-- Matthew 22.34-46
This season of televised debates, one in which the meteoric rise and fall of a candidate's political fortunes can take place in a single day, is as good a time as any to remember these two ancient parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Parties? You mean, as in politics? Oh, yes. It was no easier to separate religion and politics in the ancient Middle East than it is today.
Modern Christians look back at them through the lens of first-century rivalry within Judaism: Pharisees distrusted Sadducees, and they both distrusted the first Christians, who returned the compliment. So the gospel writers cast them in an unfavorable light: more than once, they show Jesus handily defeating one or the other in an argument. Because they disliked the Pharisees and Sadducees, we think we should, too. We even have an insulting English word that has preserved this ancient conflict: when we want to say that someone is hypocritical and self-righteous, we might use the word "pharisaical". We never call someone "sadducaical", by the way -- the Sadducees, whose priestly identity revolved around worship and ritual in the temple in Jerusalem, did not survive its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.
But we are apt to have it in for the Pharisees, which is too bad, they being the ancestors of the rabbinic Judaism we know today. Theirs was a faith which could and did survive the loss of temple worship. One didn't need the temple to study Torah, the majesty of the law, to enjoy the blessing of communal and individual prayer. The central tragedy of first-century Judaism proved to be its salvation: all the ancient religions that depended on temple sacrifice died out, but Judaism, made infinitely portable by the loss of its ritual home, could and did carry these gifts throughout the world and through the ages.
Our inherited dislike of the Pharisees is, like all inherited dislikes, largely uninformed. This story, for instance, in which Jesus distills all the Jewish laws (all 613 of them!) to these two-- loving God so completely that nothing is left over, and loving the neighbor in the same way -- is actually adapted by the gospel writer from an exchange between two rabbis who lived and taught a few decades before Jesus did: Shammai, asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, chases his challenger away with a stick! Hillel, when given the same challenge, simply lifts one foot and says "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."
Love that holds nothing back. Love that puts all its eggs in one basket. Love so total that it looks way too simple, except that it's not simple at all. It takes a lifetime to learn what it takes less than a minute to say.