Saturday, November 1, 2008


I don't know exactly what I will preach tomorrow - especially since I have a children's homily at the second service instead of a "real" sermon - but it will be something like the following. And, of course, who knows what the congregation will, in fact, hear!

Pharisees: just like us?

I know it seems such an obvious thing to say but Pharisees didn’t come fully formed. When we encounter them in the gospels, they are grown men and, somehow, it never occurred to me before to think of them as anything else.

But they were children once just like we were. Okay, not *just* like us but certainly the first century equivalent of that. They were helpless babies, learned to roll over then crawl and finally stand up, graduating from walking to running in what probably seemed like a blink of an eye to their mothers.

Most likely, their fathers were Pharisees before them but Pharisee wasn’t a job like being a carpenter or tilling fields or tending sheep. No, Pharisees worked like everyone else. A Pharisee was more like being an Episcopalian or Baptist, Republican or Democrat. In those days, politics and religion were so closely connected it was hard to tell them apart, a lot like it still is in the Middle East today in fact.

Pharisees were one party within Judaism. They might be described by others as liberal but I doubt we would use that word. Pharisees believed their authority could be traced all the way back to Moses by way of other prophets. They stressed a single verse of Exodus: you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Second Maccabbees says it this way: God gave all the people the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood, and the holiness. So you might say the Pharisees promoted democracy. They established schools and synagogues all over the country and encouraged fathers – all fathers – to see that their sons were instructed in the Law. The Pharisees became the most learned of all people and saw Torah rather than Temple as the central focus of Jewish life and faith.

The Pharisees opposed capital punishment. The Sadducees were strict in observing “an eye for an eye” but the Pharisees believed in making financial restitution instead. They wrapped up the laws that led to the death penalty with so many restrictions and qualifications that they were almost never applied, almost being the key word.

But the Pharisees were also a fairly exclusive club. Calling themselves habirim, they would swear an oath in front of at least three other Pharisees that pledged strict adherence to the laws of Levitical purity, promised to avoid associating with anyone considered an ignorant boor, and guaranteed payment of tithes and other fees to the priests and the poor. And those laws included all of the oral law derived from the Decalogue. All 613 laws, not just the basic ten.

“The aim and object of the Law, according to Pharisaic principles, are the training of man to a full realization of his responsibility to God and to the consecration of life by the performance of its …duties….” ( – Pharisees). That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Then why does Jesus rail against the Pharisees so in today’s passage from Matthew? Why does he heap woes upon their heads?

Because in the pursuit of responsibility to God, the Pharisees put too much emphasis upon their own importance and knowledge. They became the message rather than the messengers. It was more important to be *known* as a Pharisee than it was to actually *be* a Pharisee.

They were no longer true to who they were. Image trumped reality. They stopped being compassionate. They stopped being strict observers of the Law unless someone else was looking. They became, to a certain extent, the ignorant boors they were supposed to shun. Being better than the Sadducees and others became more important that dedicating their lives to God.

We can say this is about pride and humility but I think it goes deeper than that. Pride is not always a bad thing. We can be proud of what we accomplish but we cannot take all the credit. We cannot say “I did it all by myself” when we know that we are given our talents, we are given opportunities to use them.

Humility is not always a good thing. People have turned themselves into doormats in the name of humility when perhaps God was calling them to stand up and take action. We can “aw shucks” ourselves to a point where no one will consider asking us to help because we have convinced them we aren’t useful.

Before we can be proud or humble, we have to be honest. We have to know ourselves well, understand our worth or usefulness and be willing to take on kingdom work.

There is an old derogatory maxim that says, “Those who can do and those who can’t, teach.” That’s a terrible thing to say about teachers, isn’t it? But I would guess that we have all encountered someone who hasn’t the ability for something who is more than willing to tell us how we should do it. How many of you parents have had childless people try to give you sage advice on raising children? How many of you kids have had adults tell you how easy you have it these days even though they never had the homework you do and weren’t required to learn all the world throws at you today?

Honesty about ourselves includes being honest about our faith. We can’t tell someone how to be a Christian when we don’t spend a lot of time at it ourselves. If we haven’t got a prayer discipline, we can’t hold others to that standard. And yet we do that sometimes, don’t we?

I read an Easter sermon the other day that made me want to stand up and cheer. Dr. Fred Craddock, a Disciples of Christ pastor, once told a congregation that they couldn’t begin to have Easter if they hadn’t been to the funeral. You don’t get to Easter Sunday by skipping Holy Week and especially Good Friday. Dr. Craddock could say that because he hasn’t ever skipped it! His congregation could hear it because they knew without a doubt that the man was not saying “do as I say, not as I do.”

Never lose sight of the being that God has made you. Pop psychology says be comfortable in your skin and that’s good theological advice, too. If we can do that, then we can – along with our Father – be proud of what we accomplish and – because of our brother – be humble in those same accomplishments.

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