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Redeeming the Pharisees

One of my pet peeves in preaching is Straw Man Pharisee Syndrome.  You are, no doubt, familiar with this–the preacher describes, in great detail, how the Pharisees were legalistic moralists, who didn’t really care about spirituality, liked to exclude people, hated women, and were the sort of rigid rule-followers who liked to yell at those who differed from them.  We, however, were not like the Pharisees, unless we messed up.  But generally speaking, they were everything Jesus hated.

End of sermon.

This is one of my pet peeves because it tends to be a homiletic crutch.  It lets the preacher off the hook of having to do any self-examination, because the categories of good and evil are a given:  Pharisees=bad, Jesus and disciples=good.

It also has the problem that most dualisms and strawmen have:  it’s wrong.  It leaves out Pharisees who liked Jesus, like Nicodemus, or Joseph of Arimathea.  It skips over the debates that we know even from the gospels (which have their own agenda) were happening within the Pharisaic community.  And it lets the disciples off the hook, who more often than not, have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing, and act accordingly dim.

(And, ceaselessly attacking the Pharisees is kinda antisemitic.  The Pharisees invented modern rabbinic Judaism.  If you stand up in a pulpit and describe them as intolerant, unloving, and devoid of spiritual worth, what, exactly, are you saying about modern Judaism?)

So, from time to time, I like to preach in defense of those guys.  They don’t really deserve their reputation from history, and I would hope, in 2,000 years, someone would take the time to explain how awesome I secretly was, as well.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 12, 2017

Epiphany 6

Matthew

 

So there’s a Darth Vader gargoyle on the National Cathedral.  I’m not kidding–back in the 1980s, they were finishing up the cathedral’s edifice, and decided to hold a contest for what the scariest image was.  A schoolkid submitted Darth Vader and won.  So, behold.  There is now the head of Darth Vader on the side of the National Cathedral.

This really amuses me, not only because it confirms the role of Star Wars as our national mythology.   But because it points to the important role that villains play in those stories.  Whom we pick as villains usually say as much about us as they do about any inherent evil on their part.  So, Darth Vader stomping around, but then being redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi says a lot about Han, Luke and Leia  in general.

If there are villains in the gospels, then they’re probably the pharisees.  And they work really well as villains.  

They’re the sticklers, they’re the rule followers.  They believe in rules over love.  They’re bringing everyone down all the time–you can imagine them just being huge buzzkills all over ancient Palestine.  Possibly with light sabers in ominous colors. Pharisees would sell great as action figures, and you could really scare small kids with them.   Don’t be a Pharisee!

Couple of issues with that, though.  

For starters, in history, the Pharisees were GREAT.  They were a grassroots political movement aimed at spreading religious power to the average person.  See, at the time, if you were, say, a nice farming family up in the Galilee, you didn’t really have much to do with your Judaism, because it was hard and expensive.  The laws you knew about mainly told you to hike all the way down to the Temple in Jerusalem and that was cost-prohibitive.  So, most people who didn’t live in Jerusalem also figured that God really didn’t care what they did.  

Enter the Pharisees.  Who insisted that religion was for everyone.  God actually did care about the farmer in the Galilee!  So much so that God really wanted him to pray, just where he was!  And read the scriptures, just where he was!  

The Pharisee movement was actually about democratizing religion and making it more inclusive.  Not exclusive.  And when the Temple falls in 70, it is the Pharisees who manage to pull Judaism up from the ashes and resurrect it into the form we know today, complete with synagogues and rabbis.  So part of the reason we need to be careful about slagging on the Pharisees too much is that they invented modern Judaism.

Here’s the other reason we need to be careful about the Pharisees:  Jesus was basically one of them.  Look at this gospel reading!  JUST LOOK AT IT.  Because for every section of the gospels wherein Jesus is all ‘love is all you need” and “there are no rules, I’m James Dean”, there are sections like this, where he gets very intense about the intricacies of the Law.  This is one of several places where Jesus basically recites, verbatim, arguments that we know Pharisees had themselves at that time.  If villains tell us about ourselves, then part of what the Villainous Pharisees tell us about the gospel writers is that they were part of the same group, and they were anxious about the same things.  Which is why they go after each other the way they do.  It follows the logic of “no one gets to hit my brother except for me.”  We save the hardest and most specific criticism for those within our own group.  

And the thing Jesus is fired up about here is the same thing the Pharisees were:  he wanted everyone–not just the special people– to keep the law. The whole law.  And not just part of it. But, Jesus points out that there is a difference between keeping the law in order to keep the law, and keeping the law in order to fulfill the spirit of it.  

Because the law, in and of itself isn’t bad.  We really shouldn’t murder.  We really shouldn’t commit adultery.  We really shouldn’t steal.  Those are, you know, good ideas for life, in that they help us better love one another.  

The problem arises when you try to legalistically split hairs, and ignore the spirit of those rules in order to get away with not loving one another.  When the aim of God’s law is to get us to love God and love one another, then there’s a problem when we use the same law to act unlovingly.  That’s hypocrisy.

So it’s really not ok to say “Well, sure, I bully people online for fun, but I never stole anything.” or “Well, sure, I make jokes about people who look differently than me, but I’m no murderer.”  or “Yes, I closed the borders to people who believe differently than me, but ancient Israel had a wall once,  so God’s fine with this.”  By the letter of the law, you might be ok.  But if you’re not being loving, then you aren’t following the law.  You aren’t doing your job.

To claim to follow God’s law means to be committed to loving God and loving neighbor as the goal  It means that all our actions, all our words must be aimed at loving God and loving our neighbor, and spreading that love in the world.  We don’t get to pick and choose to what degree we do this–that’s what Jesus is arguing.  We have to be whole-hearted.  We have to follow the whole law.  Not just part.  Not just the part that works best for us right then.

As is usually the case with villains, the thing we dislike the most about them is the thing we dislike the most in ourselves.  The Pharisees get such a bad rap in the gospels not because they were actually such legalistic nitpickers….but because we tend to be. We always have been.

 Jesus and the Pharisees were the one who actually would like us to knock that off.  Don’t carve up the law like that.  Keep the whole thing.  Love everyone.  Serve everyone.  Persist in that loving even when it’s difficult and unpopular.  Persist even when you’ve been warned.  Persist nevertheless.  Because it’s only through that wholehearted loving of everyone–the Pharisees, our neighbors, ourselves…even Darth Vader, that the world changes.

Amen.

 

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

One response »

  1. Successful sermon! I now have another image of pharisees in my head rather than my default of “We need a more permanent solution to our problem.” from the funny-hatted, deeply-voice Caiaphas in JCS.

    Reply

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