Mark Rostron suggests that we look at our own response to Jesus’ commands before we readily condemn the Pharisees in the New Testament.
It is easy to make caricatures out of the characters of the Bible. After all, it contains a wealth of personalities and situations whose legend has passed down the ages and, in order for that to happen, things get simplified, exaggerated and glossed over in order for them to be retained in the memory, collective and individual, young and old.
But it is also one of the Bible’s greatest strengths that it contains individuals and groups whose behaviour is erratic, enigmatic and contradictory. In other words, they act like normal human beings. Just as David’s heroism and dedication to God are tainted by his dealings with Bathsheba, so Saul is less a traditional villain than a troubled soul whose circumstances play havoc with his suspicious and jealous nature. And one of the most maligned groups in the whole Bible, probably because they come into direct confrontation with the God made man who is Jesus, are the Pharisees.
Years ago I remember being encouraged by the leaders of a youth group to think of these religious leaders as essentially fat, greedy, money-loving individuals; something which I have no doubt was done with the best of intentions, but may not be the most constructive analysis in the long run. Because if we consign them to the box marked “Ludicrously Evil”, we don’t have any need to further pick apart what it was that Jesus found so offensive and how they could have got to such a point considering their history and religious training.
In other words, what were the reasons for their thoughts and feelings about Jesus, and for his words about them? And just like we can identify with Peter’s leaping in and putting his foot in it and Thomas’ doubt, where do we – where do I – fit into this picture?
As well as finding their own security in a set of rules that had been given to them as a people and as a religion, the Pharisees were also were in a situation which was, to a great extent, imposed upon them. Their people and nation were occupied by a foreign power, their king little more than a puppet, their religion practised under the watchful eye of those who would not appreciate talk of a power higher than Caesar. And the Jews did what all good human beings do in troubled circumstances: they adapted and made the best of it. This is, actually, to their credit… up to a point.
But what of the other, slightly sneaky stance, that the Pharisees had in their relationship with their social and political situation. The ‘These are terrible times, but we just have to make the best of them and can’t afford to do too much to change them’ mentality. How might that be manifested today? Essentially, it’s every time that we say to ourselves ‘I know what Jesus said…but…’ and I know that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of these ‘buts’ in my life.
I know it is good to give to the poor, but I don’t know if this man will spend my money on the right things. I know that I should talk to this man who has come to church today, but he looks like one of those people who, when he starts, he just won’t stop, and I have other things to do and people who are relying on me today. I know that I should forgive that person and talk to them again, but it’s really going to upset the other people around me who haven’t forgiven him. Each one of these sentences uses our situation, other people, our society as the reason not to do something. We’d love to do good, but our hands are tied.
It’s very dangerous to pretend to be God and assume you know what he would say in any given situation. But I put the following forward as a possibility. Something to consider. Perhaps, each time we use our situation as an excuse for not doing something that appears uncomfortably Christ-like, Jesus is there at our shoulder saying ‘Why won’t you do that? I mean the real reason. I know you’ve got one that you can almost convince yourself with. But you can be honest with me. Can’t you? Is it because you’re scared? I can understand that. Even if you don’t do what you know I want you to do, you can surely tell me the truth about why. It’s not like I don’t know, anyway.’
As with the rules of the previous section, there may not be hard and fast rights and wrongs in these situations. It may not be right to give an addict money to perpetuate his addiction with. But it is always worth checking with ourselves whose good we are really interested with, so that we don’t emulate the Pharisees who kept back money from their own parents in the name of it being given to God as Corban (Mark 7:11).
So, Jesus does not ask us to live constrained by our own times, nor does he want us to return to a previous time. He wants us to make a better future, but one could even argue that it is more than that. When he gives his disciples a new commandment (John 13:34) it is to ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another.’ This is obviously an earth-shattering command in itself if we could truly follow it – imagine a church where everyone’s love surmounted every difference and dispute. But it is also not completely unfamiliar.
Love for others exists in the Old Testament and it is treading a very similar ground to Jesus’ summary of the Law that has been mentioned previously, the second part being Love your neighbour as yourself. What is new is a specific command for something that is almost impossible to measure. One cannot end the day knowing that you have fully achieved love.
Jesus is moving us away from 'What must I do?' to 'What can I be and carry on being?'. Not only will love revolutionise the future, it takes us out of society and, because of its prior existence before even creation, almost out of time itself. Jesus asks us to live in eternity. Respecting authorities like Caesar and caring for those around us, be they relatives or the poor; but ultimately, we are of a different existence to everything that holds us back and grinds us down.
So, when I read or listen to the stories of Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees, I can envisage myself in various different positions. Perhaps I’m the poor or the tax collectors who Jesus is protecting from the Pharisees’ hypocritical behaviour. Or maybe I’m the one speaking Jesus’ words against the Pharisees to protect the outcasts. And I’d like that. But that ain’t the truth. The truth is that I’m the Pharisees. But I’m trying, Lord. I’m trying really hard to be like Jesus.
The image above is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
This article first appeared in the February 2019 edition of the https://imaginenorfolktogether.org.uk/ newsletter.
Mark Rostron is a local writer who attends Mary Magdalene Church in Gorleston.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive and good-natured debate between website users.
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here.