Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
Luke 13:31-35 - link to NRSV text
I have a feeling that a lot of people will react to this Sunday's gospel by remarking that politics make strange bedfellows. Commentators' chief concern in the passage is often to puzzle over Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees. In Luke 12:1, Jesus warns, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy." But Jesus also dines with Pharisees at their invitation. Luke in his narrator's voice says, as if none of his readers would think of contesting him, that the Pharisees "were lovers of money" (Luke 16:14). But in this Sunday's gospel, Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.
I think the first thing worth noting is our impulse to try to decide whether "the Pharisees" were "good guys" or "bad guys." It's an impulse to fight. It's better than the all-too-common impulse many Christians have to use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "rule-bound hypocrite," "jerk," or "villain," I'd say. And I'll say this in bold type (anyone who's read this blog for a while knows how rare this is, so please take is as a signal to, as Mark would say, "let the reader understand" how important I believe it to be):
Christian use the word "Pharisee" as I've described above will often, and I think rightly, be heard as antisemitic (i.e., reflecting hatred of Jews) by our Jewish neighbors.
Folks, please remember that Jewish campus ministries around the country are called "Hillel House," after Hillel, the great teacher and prominent Pharisee. All major branches of Judaism surviving today are in some sense descended from the Pharisees; others were mostly wiped out in the devastating wars with Rome in the first and second century. Our rhetoric about Pharisees is unfortunately and mostly unthinkingly conditioned by Reformation rhetoric that used "the Pharisees" as stand-ins to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, a tradition that, much to my frustration, continues today amongst many of my fellow Christian progressives who, when they want to insult their fellow Christians, compare them to Pharisees -- that, is, to Jews. Well, I've said it before (and you may find some more information on why I'm saying it in the archive of posts on Pharisees), but it's worth saying again:
It's well past time for the antisemitic tradition of Christians insulting other Christians by comparing them to Jews to end. Please. You can do it: just walk away from the metaphor. It's misleading, its roots are in hatred, and it does no good to interfaith relations, to justice, or to our souls.
The bottom line, I'd say, is that we see Pharisees so often in conflict with Jesus in the canonical gospels NOT because the Pharisees' ideas and way of life were antithetical to Jesus', but because they had so very much in common. They (unlike most other Jews in the first century) read prophetic texts like Isaiah as scripture. They (unlike the Sadducees) thought that scripture and its injunctions must be interpreted using our reason in light of changing circumstances. Both the Pharisees and Jesus believed that the sacrifices of prayer and holy living where people were day by day were at least as important as anything that went on in the Temple. Both the Pharisees' movement and Jesus' were known for reaching out to others, and both were known for their enthusiastic welcome to Gentiles who wanted to join up. Really. There's more info on all of this in the archive.
It's worth remembering as we read texts about Pharisees that the Pharisees are not like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, linked telepathically with one another and acting in unison. Indeed, one of the best things to remember about Pharisees is that they actually VALUED difference and debate. The Talmud is a long record of debates, of Pharisaic teachers disagreeing with one another, coming together to share their best arguments before the assembly, of voting on a decision, and then recording the minority opinion along with the majority. Should we be surprised that Luke shows some Pharisees as hypocrites, some as lovers of money, some as attracted to Jesus' ideas and movement (and some in the book of Acts as being Christians!), and some as wanting to help Jesus? Why is it so hard for us to understand that the Pharisees were a diverse movement of people with a shared commitment to seeking the God who created the universe in every moment of daily life as well as in their wrestling with scripture, but who differed from one another in important points -- sometimes very important points indeed -- as well?
Perhaps it's because too many of us in the church have forgotten something the Pharisees, like Jesus and his band of squabbling disciples remembered -- that the history of God's people is of God calling together disparate peoples with different gifts and weaknesses, and forming them into one people, still distinct in gifting and in perspective, still wrestling with scripture and with one another with the vigor that characterized Jacob/Israel's wrestling with God's angel, and still called to a common destiny, to do justice and mercy and worship God.
The Pharisees, with all of their differences from one another as well as from Jesus, have a great deal to teach us at this moment in our life together:
We are not made a people, God's people, by our thinking alike or even our behaving alike; we are made a people by God's action, and our response to God's graciousness must include graciousness toward one another, preserving the minority opinion alongside the majority, and coming together over and over again to argue (with tears as well as with texts) and, from time to time, to vote, and then to resume arguing. We are sisters and brothers, after all, and what sisters and brothers in a healthy family are not arguing or playing most of the time when they're not eating (and much of the time when they are)?
Had Jesus' followers written off all Pharisees as enemies and hypocrites, their numbers would have been diminished by the number of Pharisees who became Christ-followers. More importantly, though, the Body of Christ would have been diminished in God's gifting. I don't doubt that Pharisees who were Christians lost the vote at the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, but the Body won in other ways for their presence. Pharisaic Christians were there as a crucial voice in the church connecting the prophets Isaiah and Amos, Micah and Jeremiah, and others to what God was continuing to do through the Holy Spirit among Christians and in the world. They were there to remind Gentile believers, many of whom were too quick to equate emotional spiritual epiphanies and the promise of a blessed afterlife with the whole of the Christian message; they were there to teach Gentiles that Jesus affirmed and even expanded the teaching of the Law and the Prophets that we worship God with justice for the poor.
So this Sunday, I encourage you to thank God for the Pharisees, and to learn from them about what it means to be God's people. When there are foxes about who, like Herod, want to consolidate their power by eliminating troublesome voices, the Pharisees' willingness to continue in ongoing discernment about what God wants from us, ongoing dialogue with one another about scripture and what it means in light of the circumstances we're in serves as an excellent example. In light of those godly values, we shouldn't be all that surprised that some Pharisees were concerned about Herod's plots against Jesus.
Indeed, we shouldn't be surprised when Jesus tells his followers that their righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees. Jesus, after all, defines God's perfection, God's righteousness as imitating God's graciousness in giving rain and other good gifts to the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). In saying that our graciousness should be even more extravagant than the Pharisees, Jesus is setting a high bar -- but God's grace is such that God sends God's Spirit upon us to empower us to do that as the Body of Christ.
Is that a gift you and I are ready to receive? Are our churches in the Anglican Communion and our leaders?
I don't know. I do know what Jesus did. He received what his allies among the Pharisees offered graciously, and he one-upped it, not fleeing from Herod, but setting his face toward Jerusalem, where he would confront the arguably greater might of Pontius Pilate and the members of the religious establishment who (unlike most Pharisees in Galilee) owed their position to the favor of Rome.
I would like to be as gracious as Jesus, but I hope I am at least as gracious as those Pharisees who stayed with him and argued with him, and especially those who broke bread with him. God was at work within and among them, after all, and many became prophets to God's church as well as to the world, preserving the priceless vision of the prophets of all nations streaming into Zion at God's invitation.
Thanks be to God!
Thank you so much for this post. I didn't realize how much I needed to hear someone point this out, until you did so, and I felt a kind of stifled frustration lifting away from my shoulders.
Blessings to you!
Posted by: Rachel | Mar 3, 2007 5:12:40 PM
Amen. Excellent post -- most helpful.
I've certainly been guilty of using Pharisee in a pejorative way and that's something excellent to "give up."
Appreciate the way you generalized in a way that that I find applicable to current Anglican/Episcopal/Global South events.
Of course, I find myself somewhat at odds with your "fox talk" in that I'm one of the impatient "foxes" who wants to clearly set out progressive Christian beliefs and stand firm on them -- letting the Anglican Communion/Global South chips fall where they may.
I'd love to hear from you or anyone what the real bottom line daily life value is of TEC's membership in the Anglilcan Communion. Heard ++KJS the other day mention "voice at the table" and "distribution network."
Posted by: Glenn Gould | Mar 3, 2007 6:46:29 PM
I've have to third Glenn and Rachel. My understanding of the Pharisees is that they were people who favored their Jewishness and opposed to Rome. Unlike the Essene who believed in order to save their Jewishness they voluntarily exiled themselves into isolated communities, to keep from being tainted by the Greco-Roman way of life, the Pharisees favored living in the "real world". Correct?
I wonder why we don't educate people better about the historical context and audience the readings were intended for? Literal reading of the Bible without background on audience and societal background seems a misrepresentation of the text and poor exegesis.
Posted by: Bob in Wash PA | Mar 4, 2007 12:28:16 AM
Thanks, Sarah, for setting me straight about Pharisees. I hadn't intended, when talking about self-righteous, reactionary hypocrites and calling them Pharisees, to mean that they were acting like Jews. I meant to say that they were acting like those Pharisees in Jesus's time with whom he contended (and always won -- too bad they didn't compare notes and conclude, leave this guy alone 'cause he always hammers us).
But I can avoid using Pharisee if it's anti-Semitic, or even viewed that way by some. I have, after all, followed Harold Bloom's view that we call it the Hebrew Bible rather than the Old Testament -- because New Testament versus Old Testament can be offensive to Jews, in that it implies that New is good and necessary because Old is tired and outdated.
Posted by: Brendan Pieters | Mar 4, 2007 10:35:13 AM
I agree with you that it is time to end our uneducated rhetoric about the Pharisees. I have just published my thoughts on my blog in an article called "In Defense of the Pharisees." http://www.weaveandsewdust.typepad.com/
I would appreciate your comments.
Posted by: Barbara Quinby | Jul 26, 2008 10:07:33 PM
i would say yes there were a few pharisees who debated with an open heart the letter of the law compared to the spirit of the law that Jesus brought to the table. however i don't give them credit where the scriptures makes a point as a whole, that they were more into there own set ways and looking at things with a closed heart with agendas that were godless. it is always good to debate and discuss scriptures in regarding hermanuedics, but with an open heart-NOT to to push our own agendas like the pharisees did. we even see that type of legalistic works atttitude in todays churches. http://www.todaystruthwriter.com/2010/12/07/undercover-christian-how-to-keep-legalism-and-bondage-live-and-well-in-your-church-pt-1.html
i would never defend the pharisees as a whole because scripture doesnt--they were bent on keeping the old laws and regulations of the torah, but again, most were not up to opening the eyes of their hearts.
Posted by: j.d. stegall | Dec 7, 2010 2:34:21 AM