Being a Pharisee – 23 October 2016

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Rev’d Jonathan Gale

Joel 2: 23 – 32

23 O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain* for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
24 The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
25 I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.

God’s Spirit Poured Out
28 *Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16 – 18

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

16 At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

You may be surprised by what I’m about to say  …  I am a Pharisee.

Mind you, so was St Paul.

If you are in any way concerned about the church (and I mean the church in general – not specifically St Peter’s) and want to see it changing and making progress, you are a Pharisee.

If you are quite happy with the church and would like things to keep going as they are you are probably a Sadducee.  But it’s not the Sadducees under the spotlight in today’s Gospel reading.

Let me tell you about the Pharisees. When the Jewish Exiles returned from Babylon they came back having instituted synagogue worship as they had had no temple in Babylon.

The discovery of lay involvement and local congregations was a good thing. It would be some time before the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem and it played an important part in keeping the faith alive.

About 364 years later Alexander the Great’s generals and their descendants (whose brutal rule had lasted many years) were displaced in a Jewish rebellion led by Judas Maccabaeus and his sons.  At one point over 800 Pharisees had been crucified in front of their wives and children.  As so often happens with persecution, thereafter the Pharisees began to emerge as a powerful force in Judaism.

The Pharisees were not priests – many of them were scribes – people who were well-educated and who interpreted the Law of Moses. They were the forerunners of Rabbinic Judaism which is with us today.

They were generally popular with the common people and were highly critical of the Sadducees who were mainly Temple priests and fairly conservative. It was a case of the new against the old in Judaism.

The Pharisees were characterised by an obsession with the Jewish purity laws. They packed a number of laws around the Law of Moses in an effort to ensure people conformed to what they passionately believed was the way to serve God.

The point is that the Pharisees were not, on the surface of it, bad guys. They were fanatical in their desire to see the Law of Moses obeyed. In fact there was a sect amongst them known as ‘the bloody Pharisees’ and the reason for this was they kept their eyes lowered  in order not to see anything sinful so they kept walking into things and bloodying their foreheads.  These were committed people!

So being a Pharisee simply means you have a certain theological orientation. In Philippians Paul boasts that he is a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee.

The question is this: what do you do with your Pharisaism? Do you use it as an informative background to your new-found faith in Christ, or do you allow it to dominate your life in Christ?

The Pharisees clashed mightily with Jesus and we have to ask why.  When we do, we might see some of the dangers lurking there because like any approach, it can either be helpful or unhelpful.

Here are some possible reasons the Pharisees fell foul of Jesus:

  • Jesus was the fulfilment of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees opposed him because they could read between the lines and had a suspicion that he was beginning to portray himself as the Messiah.
  • Jesus accused them of outward observance of the Law of Moses but of having hearts that were far from being dedicated to God.
  • Over-reaching their authority. The good of lay ministry may have gone to their heads. Could this have led to the many new laws they added to the Law of Moses in an effort to get people to please God?
  • A critical attitude. If you have a sense of significance, along with a sense that you are right, and you operate in an established practice of lay ministry; if you are not careful you can develop a spiritual identity that focuses on pushing your theological agenda first and foremost rather than on worshipping God.

This has three devastating outcomes:

  • You see yourself as separate from others (in fact the word “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew ‘parush’ – which means “one who is separated.”
  • The energies you exercise in corporate spiritual matters is one of dissatisfaction, of a subtle sense of superiority, and
  • Your focus shifts away from God to the methods you think people should be following in order to please God.

All these are aspects of Pharisaism and they are alive and well in all of us to a lesser or greater degree. They certainly operate in all churches.

Pharisaical attitudes have led to a host of new denominations popping up over the years as dissatisfied and spiritually proud people push their own agendas.

I once knew a young man whose father was the local Church of Christ minister – “Non-Instrumental’. (They believed musical instruments were evil so did not use them). He told me of an intersection in a Texas town where there was a different Church of Christ on each of the four corners. Over the years the church had split to the point of proliferation because people had been dissatisfied with the way others had worshipped.

When your spiritual identity is shaped more by opposition to what you disapprove of than by a dynamic and loving relationship with Jesus, you are in danger of allowing your Pharisaism to dominate your life.

Pharisaism wants people to conform to its ways. It does not look to take them unconditionally for who they are.

Let’s have a very brief look at the other character in the story, the Tax-Collector.

The Roman Governors of Palestine during Jesus’ time appointed Jewish people to extract taxes from the local people. As you can imagine these men were hated by their own people for collaborating with a pagan and cruel foreign power.

It is rumoured (and the New Testament story of Zacchaeus confirms this) that Tax-Collectors overtaxed people and pocketed the difference. They enriched themselves at the expense of their own people. By all accounts they were bad people.

In Jesus’ parable we read 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

We need to see that what the Pharisee was saying was true! He is not like other people and he does fast and tithe. And I have no doubt he does all of this and more in his service of God. However, some of what we have already discussed about the Pharisees is evident in his behaviour;

  • He stands by himself – separating himself from others
  • He is critical of other people and the tax-collector in particular

But there is one pivotal thing about his worship experience – he is focussed on what he does, not on what God does. This can’t be overemphasised.

The essence of Jesus’ mission is grace – unmerited favour, and if we focus on the part we play in the mysterious interchange of salvation (and not on what God does) we diminish the work of Christ on the cross.

And it’s not just in the drama of salvation that we need to focus on Jesus, it is in our ongoing relationship and our worship of him too.

The way we think about our relationship with God has a huge impact on our behaviour. We want to avoid the three devastating effects mentioned earlier:

  • Seeing oneself as separate from others because secretly we think we’re superior
  • Dissatisfaction with the spirituality of others, and
  • A shift in focus away from God to the methods we think people should be following in order to please God

These were the characteristics of the Pharisee’s worship in Jesus’ story.

When it comes to the Tax-Collector, we read 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

He is focussed on the activity of God – in this instance God’s forgiveness.

Jesus’ response is: 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

The idea that our spirituality is centred in what we do can be a trap as we’ve seen all too clearly with the Pharisee.

For the Pharisee it was all about himself and what he did. For the Tax-collector it was about what God could do.

So let those of us who are Pharisees (you Sadducees can sit back and relax!) never allow our Pharisaism to dominate us. Let us not be so enamoured of our vision for what we want God to do that we

  • begin to define ourselves in opposition to those who think differently
  • subtly see our approach as right and that of others as an impediment to the Kingdom of God
  • Develop a critical spirit
  • Become dissatisfied
  • Focus on what others should be doing to conform to the way we think things should be done

Let me say this: what needs doing has been done by Jesus on the cross.

I never thought I’d ever hear myself saying this, but let’s be like the tax man. Let’s take our eyes off others and look to God and the gift that is Jesus!

Only Jesus can change hearts. Only Jesus can assure us of salvation. Only Jesus is able to meet us wherever we are and restore us to relationship with the Father. Only Jesus can bring peace and joy and wholeness into a life. Let’s look to him, not to others.

Had the Pharisees spent a little time re-evaluating why they wanted a frantic ‘doing’ of the Law of Moses, they would have realised that the very fulfilment of the Law stood before them in the person of Jesus. They would have achieved their desire to see God’s Kingdom manifest, but not in the way they were expecting.

Is there a message for us there somewhere – including for this Pharisee standing in front of you?