The Pharisees, Jesus, and Drawing Lines in the Sand

The Pharisees, Jesus, and Drawing Lines in the Sand

Hans Schäufelein; Christ and the Pharisees, from Das Plenarium, 1517,

 

Growing up in the church it was always pretty clear to me who the bad guys of Scripture were. I knew that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not down with Jesus and tried repeatedly to fool and shame him. But Jesus was too smart for them, instead skillfully and compassionately evading their traps: refusing to condemn a woman they wanted to stone, challenging them to study what is meant by God’s declaration “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and using a story of a beaten and bloody man cared for by the lowest of low to teach what is meant by love your neighbor. Jesus’ harshest words were always for these “whitewashed tombs” who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4) My childhood world was pretty black and white, divided into good guys and bad guys, and when it came to Jesus and his enemies, all was crystal clear.

 

But it turns out the world isn’t so black and white, and neither is Scripture. The more I learn and lean in, the more I see nuance, both/and, now/not yet and I am not as eager to fit things into neat dichotomous categories. A few years ago when I studied the book of Matthew in Bible Study Fellowship I found myself strangely empathetic to the Pharisees. As I began to put myself in their shoes I started to see how threatening the teaching of Jesus were to their understanding of God, of their holy book Torah, of righteousness, of their fundamental understanding of who they were as God’s chosen people. Jesus was upending everything they thought they understood. Now you can argue that Jesus was simply returning to the original intention, revealing to them who God had always been, showing them how they had missed the mark over the years. But change is hard, especially when the change is predicated on the fact that you were wrong. So often when confronted with our failures and offered a right perspective, instead of accepting new information we double-down, hold tighter and dig in our heels. I am speaking from years of personal experience here; humility is not my strength.

 

I started to get where the Pharisees were coming from. For Jews of the first-century, their framework for self-understanding was found in Torah, in the sacred writings of Israel. Torah gave Jews an identity as God’s chosen people and the responsibilities that came with this election. Jews viewed Torah as the eternal word of God, unchanging and normative in all times and contexts. But since life is ever changing, Pharisaic tradition was created to help Jews “continue to live in the present world but seek to discover in Torah itself the principles that would allow them to maintain its integrity as an absolute norm, yet relate it to the real circumstances of their lives.”[1] The invention of this interpretive practice called midrash kept Torah alive, present, and authoritative.

 

Christians have continued such a practice with our sacred texts found in The Holy Bible (which includes the Jewish texts). We may not call it midrash, but the work of theologians and pastors to interpret these ancient texts in light of our lives and contexts certainly feels like this practice. For example, obviously Scripture doesn’t speak directly to my use/abuse of technology, but I can find principles for caring for others, the wise use of my time, honoring resources, etc. that help me develop a healthy ethic around this modern invention. I have noticed a trend of Evangelicals to happily camp out in the Epistles because these letters of Paul, James, and others tend to spell things out more clearly than a story from the Old Testament or life of Jesus might. And yet we still must wrestle. Was Paul’s admonition against women preaching towards a specific context, or for all time and place? Did Jesus really mean we should turn the other cheek if abused? Like the Jews with Torah, Christians believe our holy text is alive and relevant and has as much to say to us modern people as it did to early believers.

 

You may already assume where I’m headed with these thoughts, but here is where I spell them out for you. A few weeks ago a group of Evangelical leaders, with (what I’m asking God to help me see) the best of intentions, wrote out a sort of midrash on sexuality they called the Nashville Statement. This, they declared, is the proper way to view human sexuality from a scriptural viewpoint, and this, they were clear to note, is the only way for followers of Jesus to do so. A line in the sand was drawn. Insiders and outsiders were declared.

 

As I read and wept in anger and grief, not only at the tone-deaf timing of the statement, but also to the damage it would inevitably cause in the lives of sincere Christ-following LGBTQ people and their friends, family members, and allies, I couldn’t help think of Matthew 23 and the weeping Jesus did over the Pharisees. “Woe to you,” he cried again and again. “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy.” “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of fish.” Jesus’ harshest words were always for these religious leaders and it is no wonder why my childhood-self vilified them too.

 

When Jesus walked the earth he declared that he had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He told us that he was the embodiment of the law, the personification of it. If we wanted to know what God was up to, sure we could look to Scripture, but we should first and foremost look to Jesus. Scripture is an important, living gift. But it is not central, not a fourth member of the Trinity. To understand any of our holy texts, old and new testament alike, they must be filtered through the lens of Jesus. Scripture is not Jesus.

 

And neither is the Nashville Statement.

 

 

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 50.

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