I went to clergy conference this week, where my former liturgics professor was the keynote speaker. There were two of his former students present, and we took joy in sharing with him the numerous times he lapsed into his trademark phrases: citing the pitfalls of the Enlightenment, name-dropping Lathrop, Kirsteva, and Kavenaugh, and warning us that any change to a prayer book rubric should come after, AT MINIMUM, a week of sleepless nights, as you pondered whether you, fallible human creature that you were, really knew better than the collected two millennia of Christian wisdom distilled in liturgical practice. I was reminded of the joys of seminary (and despite the turmoil that has befallen that institution in recent years, I did enjoy seminary.)
It got me thinking about whatever tropes I have as a preacher (and I’m sure I have plenty.). One that I am aware of is that I preach a sermon on why We Should Be Nicer to Pharisees at least once a year. This happens both because of my concern for decent scholarship in homiletics, and a reluctance to allow a vibrant religious movement within Second-Temple Judaism be the straw man for everything, and the nagging thought that beating up on the historic Pharisees is about two steps removed from beating up on actual Jewish people, if you know the history.
Anyway, herein is my now annual Be Nice To Pharisees Sermon.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
June 3, 2018
Ordinary Time, Proper 4
The 5th century Persian poet Hafiz has a poem wherein a stranger comes to him, asking for confirmation of these marvelous visions that he’s been having. Are they true? Are they really from God? Hafiz asks him how many goats he has—the man is offended, but Hafiz insists. 62, replies the man. Fine, and how many children? Do you love your wife? Are your parents still alive? Do you feed the birds in winter? The man answered all these questions, growing ever more frustrated, until finally Hafiz says “You asked me if your visions were true, and I would say that they were if they make you become more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know.”
That’s a more poetic version of the gospel—straight from 5th century Persia! Theres not much new under the sun, after all. Because in the gospel, we see the same tension—Jesus’ disciples are being scolded for breaking off heads of grain, growing in a field, on the Sabbath—presumably because they’re hungry and haven’t eaten, and look—there’s a snack. And this irks the Pharisees, who want to know why Jesus, a famous religious teacher, is allowing his disciples to be so neglectful as to ignore the basic laws of Sabbath observance. Doesn’t he know any better?
The Pharisees are so easy to beat up on. For centuries, they have made the perfect punching bag for preachers, and their name has come to be synonymous with uptight religious hypocrites everywhere. They really don’t come off well in the gospels—especially here, where they greet Jesus’ healing by deciding he really had to die.
But (and you knew there was a but coming, right?) as with all things, the Pharisees are more complicated. They were something like a reform-minded political party in the Jewish landscape of the day. Their central idea was that Jewish religious observance had become too centered around the Temple, its economy, and the priestly class that it supported…and whom, in turn, mostly supported Roman occupation. If you were poor, or lived far away, there was almost no feasible way for you to participate in Jewish life, and the Pharisees thought this was unfair to you—God’s ways should be open to everyone. Wasn’t that what the prophets said? So they began emphasizing the rules of Jewish life that everyone could follow, so that everyone, no matter how rich, how poor, how young, or how old, could be included in the worship of God. Washing hands, saying the daily prayers, observing the Sabbath rest, cleansing yourself after you touched something unclean (which in the country happened about every twenty minutes). All of this wasn’t really a way to be obsessive—it was a way to allow everyone—no matter who you were—to find God. There are so many similarities between what Jesus was preaching and what some of the other Pharasitical rabbis taught that some scholars think Jesus was an erstwhile Pharisee as well—which would explain the heated animosity on the few points where they disagreed. Because no one punches my brother except for me.
When the Temple fell, in 70 CE—the center of Jewish life fell with it. But it was the Pharisees who picked up the pieces, met together and rebuild Judaism into the rabbinic tradition that we see today. Today’s rabbis are descendents of this movement that insisted that God’s laws needed to be open to everyone, not just the most special. (which is ANOTHER reason the church needs to not slam the Pharisees too much.)
All of this to say: The Pharisees aren’t wrong necessarily—the rules and guidelines they follow are, for them, a way to find God, and a way to show devotion to the Power that ordered the universe. WHERE IT BECOMES A PROBLEM is when the means interfere with the end.
Those rules are intended to point humanity towards a Loving God. To the extent that they do that, fantastic! But to the extent that they are followed just to make the rule-follower feel more special than other people, that is no longer helpful. To return to Hafiz—visions are meant to bring us closer to God. If they make the receiver more humble, more connected, more loving and more devoted to the Ground of all Being, fantastic! But if they only serve to make the receiver feel better than everyone else, then something has gone awry.
There’s a constant push-pull dynamic in the walk with faith, to make sure that the trappings of faith do not become our end, but faith itself. That we don’t get caught up in the turns and twists in the path, but keep our gaze focussed on God alone. It’s a delicate dance, because so often the things that attract us to the faith journey can later distract us if we let them. it’s all a matter of balance. The liturgy is beautiful, gives order and meaning to our prayers, connects us to generations that have gone before us. The symbols we use speak volumes time and time again. The very sense of calling to be a people of service, set apart from the world in order to serve it—all these things frequently draw us farther into our walk with Christ, and are good things. And yet, if we let them fill our vision entirely, then they outgrow their purpose.
Because the purpose of all of this religious observance is to grow us into the creatures God intended us to be, and enable us to live in a reconciled creation with God. Faith is meant to direct our focus away from itself, away from ourselves, towards God and God’s creation. It is always outward facing—faith always points away from self–toward God and what God would have us care about.