Pharisees

The Motherly Christ

Luke 13:31-35

I love Scripture that takes our traditional views and turns them upside down. Good guy Pharisees, God as mother, stuff like that.

Jesus was headed for Jerusalem—in Luke, his final destination always seems clear—and some Pharisees stopped him to warn him not to go there. The king wants you dead, they said.

Jesus spent so much time chastising the Pharisees that we forget there were good men among this religious group, some who wanted to follow him, if only in secret. In fact, the Jews have a collection of wisdom writings known as the Talmud, and in these writings there are descriptions of seven types of Pharisees, one positive, six negative.

The negative ones had nicknames. In one way or another, Jesus went after every type in his discourses, much to the delight of his audiences. And frankly, they may call themselves Christians and not Pharisees, but it is not hard to find these same types among our churches today:

  • The Shoulder Pharisees. These men wore their good deeds “on their shoulders” to be seen by others.
  • The Wait-a-little Pharisees. They always found a good excuse to put off a good deed until tomorrow.
  • The Bruised or Bleeding Pharisees. No rabbi (a scholarly Jewish teacher) was supposed to be seen talking to a woman on the street. Some would not even look at a woman, closing their eyes and consequently slamming into walls, doors, trees, or whatever else was in the path. They thought their wounds were evidence of extraordinary piety.
  • The Hump-backed Pharisees. They cringed and pretended to be humble, but were generally faking it. Who knew you could take pride in humility?
  • The Ever-Reckoning Pharisees. They were always adding up their good deeds as if keeping a balance sheet for God.
  • The Timid or Fearing Pharisees. They were terrified of the wrath of God. The poet Robert Burns once wrote of people not helped but haunted by their religion, and these men would fall into that category of believer.

And finally, there were the God-loving Pharisees, who tried to live like their ancestor Abraham, exhibiting faith and charity. Nicodemus in the Gospel of John comes to mind, drawn to Jesus (if only at night) and eventually helping with Jesus’ burial. Some of these good Pharisees must have been the ones who wanted to warn Jesus.

Jesus would not be dissuaded from continuing, though. I would condense his answer to, “Watch me work.” And yet, a tone of despair—motherly despair—crept in. Jerusalem was the child gone bad, the one the Christ so desperately wanted to protect, covering and sheltering the city’s people from what was to come. (We can never forget the destruction to come four decades later, destruction Jesus foresaw.)

Normally, we use masculine language for God, and divinity clearly resided in the male form of Jesus. We use such language with good reason. One of the great metaphors running through Scripture is that of the husband God pursuing the unfaithful, undeserving bride, humanity. It’s a metaphor worth preserving in our use of language.

God is not exclusively male, however. We are reminded that what is best in both men and women—particularly, our ability to love—exists fully and perfectly in God. Yes, God is capable of providing everything our imperfect fathers cannot, but God equally can mother us more perfectly than any woman. There are numerous examples of God as mother in the Old Testament, too.

That motherly instinct seems to have been shining through in Jesus as he looked toward Jerusalem, a place in which he clearly delighted. He was not a city boy, but he loved the city and all it represented. It was, after all, the center of God’s promises to the Jewish people, its temple more of a home to Jesus than anyplace he had lived. And yet, he knew the city and its residents would bring about his death.

Unable to protect the recalcitrant city in the great plan that was unfolding, he instead used that coming death to spread his arms out on the cross and shelter us all, making eternal life possible. If we choose to stay under Christ’s protection, death cannot truly swoop in and take us—eternal life is ours.

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Misunderstood

Mark 11:1-11

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. It actually was one of the great misunderstandings in history, however, with none of the onlookers really understanding what Jesus was trying to communicate.

As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”

And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey colt. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.

Even his disciples failed to remember Jesus’ teachings, however, especially the one about his need to go to Jerusalem, die, and then rise on the third day. The disciples and the common people had their minds set on worldly salvation, failing to grasp how much more they could receive from God. They also missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to come in peace, readied to make the great sacrifice, would become evident as the week progressed.

And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.

There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were experts at accommodation, fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.

There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.

There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.

And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.

When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.

But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.

Fully Clothed

"Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet" by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) - Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet” by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) – Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 22:1-14

The king in this parable takes his son’s wedding celebration very seriously. No surprise there; what’s astonishing is how no one close to the royal family seems to care.

Maybe the king’s son is like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all pasty-faced and whiny and trying to sing his way through life, and no one wants to put up with him for the next seven days or so. (Wedding banquets could go on for quite awhile.) Such speculation will cause us to miss the point of the parable, however.

Jesus told this parable near the end of his ministry, while delivering a withering critique of the Pharisees and other leaders of the Jews. The kingdom of heaven is like a glorious banquet. To refuse to go to such a feast makes no sense. Jesus was implying that the Jewish leaders were worse than the wedding guests, refusing to acknowledge the arrival of the messiah and the beginning of the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, they and their ancestors for centuries had participated in the persecution and slaughter of prophets who had declared the coming kingdom.

Therefore, Jesus was saying, the king—God—would invite others, people who had never expected to go to the banquet. For non-Jews, this is the important part of the parable. We Gentiles are the ones gathered from the streets, “both good and bad.”

What an opportunity! All we unwashed heathens have to do is say “yes” to the invitation. But one thing remains in the story: what to wear?

"The Marriage Feast" by John Everett Millais

“The Marriage Feast” by John Everett Millais

This is where we run into the really difficult part of the parable, the four verses that serve almost as a parable unto themselves. The king enters the banquet hall full of commoners but sees a guest not dressed properly. The king’s men bind this slob hand and foot and cast him out into a place darker-than-dark, a location full of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and sounding suspiciously like hell. Here we see it is possible to say yes to the invitation, get into the party, and still not please the king.

“For many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus concluded his parable.

Three weeks ago, while preaching about God’s enormous grace, I mentioned that Jesus and the early church fathers at times seemed to indicate salvation will be widespread, possibly even universal, while at other times they spoke in a very sober way about the demands inherent in following Christ. This parable seems to be on the more restrictive end of the spectrum.

If we’re not careful, we can be left feeling as if we’re once again striving for our salvation, trying to earn it under some sort of new code or law that has replaced the Jewish system that proved to be such an impossible burden. What must we do, and how well must we do it? What might the king’s fashion rules be? Go to church? Read your Bible? Say your prayers?

The parable, however, really isn’t taking us in such a direction. To fully understand what Jesus was saying, we need one important piece of background information. In Jesus’ day, guests at an elaborate wedding banquet like this one didn’t have to dress for the occasion. The host provided everyone with robes to wear. You simply had to wrap yourself in what was his.

When we accept that invitation to joyous life with Christ, we receive more than an eternity scheduled to begin at a later date. God’s Holy Spirit clothes us with his righteousness and attributes now, if we let God work in us.

This was what Paul was talking about when he said in Galatians that the Holy Spirit gives us characteristics we cannot achieve on our own: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the garments we put on, a kind of clothing we could never stitch together on our own.

Activities like worship, Bible study and prayer aren’t rules, they’re garment boxes, wrapped and ready with our holy, eternal clothing inside. The more we open these boxes, the more of God’s robes we put on.

With such gifts awaiting us, why would anyone want to wear the stinky old clothes from days gone by?

Leading from a Cross

Matthew 23:1-12

We use the word “leader” in both secular and Christian settings. Christianized leadership is so different, however, that the task almost needs a different word.

Jesus’ teachings about leadership are the basis for the stark contrast. We look in particular to the words he spoke as he denounced Jewish religious leaders in his day.

One of these confrontations, found in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, comes across as harsh, particularly when you consider that just a few breaths earlier Jesus had spoken of the need to root our actions in love. (I suppose there’s a side lesson here: Loving certain people can mean having the courage to point out where they go against God.)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach,” Jesus said.

He went on to point out the hypocrisy of these religious leaders, who were supposed to be working from sound understandings of Jewish scripture—writings filled with lessons about the importance of justice and mercy. Instead, he said, these leaders increased the burdens of the average Jew.

They also took great pleasure in the accouterments and honors that went with their positions. In a long diatribe, Jesus described them as legalistic nitpickers who had been entrusted with words of life but instead were better associated with death.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus said.

Our savior also practiced what he taught, becoming the great example of humble leadership. His trip to the cross brought him to the ultimate low point, death; his resurrection led to great exaltation.

The implications for Christian leadership are enormous. Followers of Christ are people who should turn the very idea of leading upside-down. In a Christian context, leadership becomes sacrifice rather than gain. A Christian leader lives in the mud surrounding the pedestal.

And yes, there is a serious dearth of true Christian leadership in the Christian community today. There are good leaders among both the clergy and the laity. But both the United Methodist Church and the larger, universal church desperately need more.

I’ve never heard anyone in a congregation complain, “We’ve got more good leaders than we know how to use.”

It would help, I am sure, if we who are already leading were better at explaining the basic role of a leader in a Christian community. That way, people could more clearly understand whether they are called to a leadership role.

Right now, we define “leader” mostly by describing a particular function in the church, usually defined as service on a board or a committee. A job description really doesn’t tell us how to lead, though. It just describes what specific task needs to be done.

In 1984, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder interacted very closely with the New Testament to describe the four basic types of leaders in a Christian community. If you feel you’re equipped to fill one or more of these roles, you’re probably called to lead in the church in some way.

Yoder said good Christian leaders act as:

  • Agents of Direction. These people keep the vision of the kingdom of God before the people. They function like prophets, reminding others of the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ, work that ultimately restores creation to its holy state. They make sure the church remembers that it exists to help usher in this kingdom.
  • Agents of Memory. These leaders help the church remember what is in Scripture and what the traditions have been regarding interpretation of God’s word, particularly where these reminders are relevant to a particular issue before the church. They do this largely without judgment.
  • Agents of Linguistic Self Consciousness. In other words, people who are sensitive to how words are used. Think of these people as the cooler heads in the crowd, the peacemakers who calmly untangle what others are saying.
  • Agents of Order and Due Process. People who ensure the unity of the group even in the midst of conflict, encouraging participation by all.

Some people may react to this list of “agents” by saying, “But those are the things the pastor is supposed to do.” And therein, I suspect, lies a significant part of our leadership crisis.

Certainly, a pastor should have a good sense of how to function in all four roles. But at the same time, the pastor should know this in order to equip others to fulfill these roles. We’ve become too reliant on church “professionals.”

A healthy church is full of people so committed to the spiritual disciplines that Jesus’ teachings have shaped their heads and hearts for leadership. Once leading, they simply have to ask themselves a few questions now and then.

Am I making others’ lives easier? Am I willing to do this without fame, title or even acknowledgment? Am I one who learns even while leading? Do I ensure justice, mercy and faith spread because of what I do?

A leader who can answer “yes” to these questions is exhibiting Jesus-style leadership.

Silenced by the Lamb

Matthew 22:15-22

The danger in setting a trap, particularly one designed to kill, is that it can close on the hand putting it in place. You can watch one snap back on the Jewish leaders who tried to trap Jesus.

The trap to which I refer is a question in Matthew 22:15-22, one designed to make Jesus appear either a traitor to the emperor—a crime punishable by death—or a collaborator unworthy of his populist following.

To follow what’s happening here, we first have to understand where Jesus is in the gospel story. He has entered Jerusalem in a parody of a conqueror’s parade, riding a donkey instead of a stallion. He has cleansed the temple of the merchants exploiting poor worshipers.

He also has told a series of parables that are quite deliberate about insulting the Jewish leaders. He paints them as hypocrites who have ignored the will of God.

In short, Jesus is near the end of his ministry and headed toward the cross. Knowing this, he boldly makes a clear distinction between how the world is working and how God wants it to work. And the clarity of the message has made these leaders very, very angry.

In the “trap” story, some unlikely partners emerge, bound by a sense that Jesus is a common threat to their positions. Some of them are disciples of the Pharisees, a strict, legalistic Jewish sect with significant political power; others are Herodians, highly secularized Jews who openly work with the Roman Empire as part of the puppet King Herod’s court.

After flattering Jesus, they ask him a straightforward question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

By “lawful,” they mean “correct under Jewish law.” Paying taxes to the Empire raised all sorts of problems for Jews, the biggest being that taxes could be paid only with official Roman coins, all of which bore the image of a deified emperor. To many Jews, using such coins meant violating at least two commandments.

In response, Jesus asks for such a coin. (Underscoring the hypocrisy behind the test, someone apparently has one handy. The image of another “god” has been carried into the temple by a Jew!) Noting whose head is stamped on the coin, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ questioners are “amazed” and slip away from the scene, Matthew tells us.

This text sometimes is preached as evidence that the state must exist alongside the church—that somehow Jesus predicted our need to pay both taxes and tithes. To go down that path is to miss the reasons for amazement, however.

Jesus first of all has shown great wisdom in sidestepping their trap, looking like neither a traitor nor a collaborator with his response. But more importantly, Jesus’ answer confronts those who hear it with what theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls an “insoluble problem.”

As followers of the living, redemptive God, can we really offer parts of ourselves to other powers that demand our allegiance? Even if those powers threaten us, should we not avoid what opposes God’s will?

It seems to me that if we are among the things that belong to God, then we need to give ourselves to God totally.

I know—easy to say, hard to do. Compromise just seems like part of life. I can give you a common example we see repeatedly in the Christian community.

I’m not one to argue that Sundays should somehow be jealously guarded by society. I don’t think the old “blue laws” that once forced the closure of shops and restaurants on Sunday were a good idea. No one should have Christian beliefs imposed on them.

But at the same time, I’m disturbed at how flippant Christians are becoming regarding Sundays, particularly when sports are involved. I hear this casualness about worship and fellowship voiced along these lines: “Well, we would have loved to be with y’all, but the big professional or college game/kids’ game/cheerleading competititon/practice/other sports event interfered.”

And I’m not talking about an occasional outing. It’s the excuse made weeks and months on end for being absent from Christian fellowship. The sporting world wants Sunday morning for its own; Christians acquiesce.

Christians, just say “no.” Enough of us remain that the sporting world will modify its schedules when we choose worship and fellowship instead.

To avoid despair in the face of Jesus’ challenge, we have to read Jesus’ temple test in the bigger picture of Matthew’s story. The Jewish leaders, in particular the Pharisees, do finally manage to trap Jesus, sending him to his death on a cross. There is no cleverness in the final trap they set. Anger trips the trigger; lies and betrayal serve as its jaws.

But God proves his supremacy, anyway. Nothing in this world, not even murderous evil, can overcome God’s plan to remake a broken world.

Thus, Christ’s resurrection from death; thus, resurrection and eternal life for those who follow Christ. And in the resurrection, Christ solves what seemed insoluble by setting all things under him, even the emperors of the world and their coliseums.