That One Word

Recently a politician came to visit Philadelphia and was greeted by an angry crowd.  There is no need, I don’t think, to specify the politician or the particular outrage—we all have our ideas about that.  Just picture this one protester, standing in the crowd, holding up a sign that says “Pharisee.” The protester was calling this elected official a Pharisee.  That one word tells us everything we need to know, doesn’t it? The protester was accusing the visiting politician of religious hypocrisy. She was holding up a sign that seemed to say everything she needed to say: that the politician professes faith in Jesus but enacts policies that are shockingly out of step with the gospel of Jesus.  That the politician claims to love Jesus but does nothing for the least among us. That the politician would be firmly on the side of the goats when Jesus came to separate them from the sheep. That the protester is a person of faith herself, enraged by the misappropriation of Christianity that distorts both religious and political life in this country.  

It was elegant.  It was concise. It made you think. It was also a real insult to Pharisees.  

Pharisees, of course, have been getting insulted by Christians for a long time, as Jewish and Christian scholars alike have pointed out.  The particular contexts in which the early gospel writers lived may be hard for us to trace, but we can if we care to examine a long history after that, in which the enemy in almost any Christian debate will be characterized as a Pharisee, a hypocrite, one who is obsessed with external forms of devotion at the expense of religious sincerity.  The Protestant Reformation in England would have been practically impossible without the word “Pharisitical,” a sneering term used mostly against Catholics, associating them with obsessive ritual practice. Anglo-catholics in the nineteenth century were called Pharisees, again for cherishing elaborate ritual practices. And here was a protester in Philadelphia, at an entirely secular event, holding up a sign that said “Pharisee” as though everyone around her, Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist—could be expected to agree that the politician in question, whose religious adherence is decidedly evangelical, could be condemned by association with one form of first-century Jewish religious observance.  It’s an all-purpose term for Christians at this point. Any hypocrite is a Pharisee.

Yes, Jesus did have a pretty heated argument with the religious leaders of his own time.  But when the word “Pharisee” can stand in for “hypocrite” without any nuance or context, we are on shaky ground.  Without thinking about it, we are following a painful tradition in which Christians insult each other by calling each other Jews. That habit is so ingrained that we don’t even hear it, but that’s part of the problem.  

Think of it this way.  Imagine that Jesus had had an argument with a bunch of Episcopalians. What would it seem like to you two thousand years later, if a protester could hold up a sign that condemned a politician with withering disgust, and all it said was “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You?”

Nobody wants to be a byword.  It doesn’t have to be said that making Jews into bywords has been a devastating practice.  Let’s stop.

So if insulting Pharisees was not the point of this gospel story, what is Jesus actually trying to do?  Why does he come down so harshly in response to a question about ritual practices when he could have been neutral?  If someone asked you why Episcopalians used incense, would you condemn them, or would you answer the question? Can’t Jesus be at least as polite and helpful as we are?

One way to answer that question is to say that this encounter in Mark’s gospel is part of a much larger context in which religious authority figures are for hypocritical reasons doing everything they can to preserve their own power and position while undercutting Jesus’s teachings.  This isn’t an isolated event, this one story. It’s part of a long contest between Jesus and prevailing religious wisdom. Our prevailing wisdom, their prevailing wisdom, any prevailing wisdom. Jesus is always going to challenge us to go deeper. Jesus is always going to open up our religion and expose its weakness.  If you ask Jesus about ritual washing, he will tell you that what’s really important is what’s inside you. If you ask Jesus whether divorce is legal, he will make you think about the hardness of your own heart. If you bring an adulterer to him for punishment, he will forgive the adulterer and condemn you. If you come to Jesus as the rich young man did, wanting to follow in all sincerity, he will look at you with love and compassion, and tell you to sell everything you have and give it to the poor.  If you give everything up to follow him, he will invite you to the foot of the cross.

Jesus is, among many other things, a principle of undoing.  His mission has something to do with breaking our lives open.  We won’t ever reach a position of secure knowing in relation to Jesus, because what we think we know is part of what keeps us from him.  Yes, right thinking and right teaching are important, but Jesus is always going to challenge us to see the underside of our rightness. There is always an underside in this life.  We will always use something to help us feel that we are in control, and Jesus will always pry that something out of our hands and help us start over.

Hearing this story correctly is about much more than learning to prioritize inner purity over the washing of pots.  It’s about much more than learning how not to misuse the word “Pharisee,” for that matter. It’s about being available to God, being able to drop whatever we are holding that gets in the way.  It’s about learning how to let Jesus transform our religion, not so that we turn our backs on “church,” but so that we let Jesus show us what we are using “church” for.

Because every one of us will be using religion for something.  Sometimes religion will be a cover for our most horrific sins, as we heard about from this pulpit so powerfully last week.  Sometimes religion is a cover for anxiety. Sometimes religion is a desperate attempt to make ourselves lovely in the eyes of God, because we have forgotten our true loveliness.  Trust me, you and I and everyone we can think of will be using religion for some human purpose, and the great work of God in our lives will be to transform that purpose.

We are all equal before God in this way.  Not that some forms of resistance to God’s grace aren’t more terrible than others, but that the fundamental orientation of our hearts has to be corrected again and again.  We have to be saved from ourselves again and again.

And this is cause for rejoicing.  It’s in that act of saving us that Jesus shows us who he is.  And Jesus never stops being larger than we can imagine, more delightful than we know, more breathtaking than we had anticipated.  

Standing before God, encountering Jesus, is baffling.  We will be tempted, on the way there, to focus on small things like ritual perfection or competitive holiness.  We will be tempted to blame others for our own manifest failures (“Pharisee!”). We will want to hide. And Jesus will be right there leading us on, with correction, even sharp correction, with puzzling teachings that make us struggle to grow, with opportunities to love those whom we fear.  With the cross. Our freedom comes from surrendering to that process, accepting those challenges. Our freedom comes from knowing that we never have it right, and surrendering to the love that brings us where we do not imagine we want to go.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
2 September 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 4, 2018 .