An eight-year-old, I think, could quite easily understand the message of today’s Gospel story. It is so crystal clear as to need no explanation or interpretation. ‘Practise what you preach’, ‘don’t say one thing and do something else’, ‘think before you commit to something’, ‘God does not like hypocrites’,……all of these aptly capture what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and elders this week.
The Gospel also sees Jesus return to one of his favourite themes – hypocrisy – and he is speaking to one of his least favourite groups of people – the Pharisees.
With an easily understood parable, a common theme (hypocrisy) and a well-known target audience (the Pharisees) it might seem that there is little on which to reflect, but if we make time to look at the ‘action’ of this Gospel there is, I think, a lot more going on than we might think. Seeking to walk the trails of Galilee and Judea with Jesus and his small band of followers, means constantly looking at the way he interacts with people and responds to the situations he encounters.
The question that leaps at me from this Gospel is this: How can a man whose life was based on forgiveness, gentleness and compassion, develop such a strong antagonism towards the Pharisees?
In the last century a book about the life of Jesus said this: “Hate hypocrisy, hate…oppression, injustice; hate Pharisaism; hate them as Christ hated them with a deep, living, Godlike hatred.” These are extremely strong words, yet most of us probably read them and nod approvingly. Since we were children the Pharisees have been presented to us as the arch-baddies of the Gospels; arrogant, jealous hypocrites, responsible for having Jesus crucified, and then setting out to destroy every last one of his followers. Isn’t it interesting that the Gospels present the Pharisees to us in a much harsher light than the cruel occupiers of Israel – Rome?
There is, of course, lots of evidence to support the idea that they were arrogant and proud and jealous of Jesus, and there is no doubt that they were complicit in his arrest and death. This is a strong argument to say that we should “… hate them as Christ hated them with a deep, living, Godlike hatred.”
But if this is true, why in other places do we seem to meet an entirely different group of Pharisees. How do we explain these texts:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2). Clearly Nicodemus was a good and open man, convinced of Jesus’ goodness and open to his teachings. This is not quite what we might expect from a “whitewashed tomb”!
Or what about this: “When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table.” (Luke 7:36). Here not only does Jesus publicly accept the invitation of Simon, the Pharisee, to dine with him, but he seems quite relaxed about it (reclined at the table).
Amazingly, in John’s Gospel, it is Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by Nicodemus the Pharisee, who took the body of Jesus after his death, anointed it according to Jewish Law, and placed it the tomb. (Luke 19:36-42). Surely this is not the work of an arrogant, jealous, Jesus-hater?
Finally there is this: “At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”(Luke 13:31). A group of Pharisees actually going to the trouble of warning Jesus about a plot to kill him. Why, I ask myself, would they do this?
Isn’t it true of life that things are never as black and white as we think they are. What we are reading in the Gospels is probably what we find when we look at any influential group in any society. We talk of Conservatives and Labour, Republican and Democrat as if they all have uniformly common beliefs. However, while there are certain idealistic similarities, we all know that within any one party there is a wide variety of differing views.
Likewise, isn’t it very obvious that within our Churches, Roman Catholic and any other you care to mention, there can be a core of beliefs and values, common to all, but hugely differing ways of interpreting them.
The Pharisees, as a sect or movement, saw themselves as guardians and teachers of the Law of Moses. They were for the most part middle-class men, of the people, and therefore quite popular among ordinary Jews. In cases of Law they were frequently asked to give guidance. Jesus himself appreciated their knowledge and urged his own followers to listen to what they had to say about the Law. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”. (Matthew 23:3).
Contrary to what we sometimes think, the Pharisees were not priests. Another group, the Sadducees, wealthy upper-class man, ministered in the Temple as priests. While they worked closely together in some ways, they had many differences in interpretation of the Law and the Prophets.
Over all of Jewish society sat Rome. Cleverly they allowed the Jews to have a kind of self-rule, with people like Herod, a Jew himself, operating as a kind of puppet King. However it was Rome who governed and it was to Rome they paid taxes. The Governor, Pontius Pilate, brooked no dissension with even minor conflicts put down with force and cruelty.
As a proud nation, the ‘chosen people’ of God, occupation was loathsome. Tensions were constant, with some groups openly advocating armed revolt against Rome. Israel was, in many ways, a roiling volcano, ready to explode. In many ways the Pharisees acted as a kind of pressure valve, trying to work with the Roman authorities while placating the people. They were well aware that an open insurrection could not succeed and any open conflict would destroy them completely. (In fact this happened less than forty years after Jesus death, when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple burned to the ground.)
The problem the Pharisees had was that Jesus was preaching that the Kingdom of God was very close, imminent, about to happen. His message, helped by his miracle working, was popular and some people were beginning to wonder if maybe he was the Messiah, the one sent to free them from Rome.
Even more worrying for the Pharisees was the fact that the Kingdom Jesus was preaching was utterly different to the Kingdom they expected. Instead of a King who would come at the head of a Heavenly army, routing the Romans and setting up a new Kingdom of God, which would vindicate Israel and punish their enemies, Jesus was preaching a Kingdom of peace and forgiveness, a Kingdom not primarily for Israel but for all people equally.
For these scholars of the Law, the Kingdom preached by Jesus was foreign and unacceptable. It could only lead to the destruction of Israel.
They watched with growing horror as the message of Jesus grew in popularity. They publicly questioned him, seeking to use their expertise in the Law to trap him. Each time they failed, sometimes even appearing foolish themselves.
The final straw came when Jesus seemed to be more and more identifying himself with the Kingdom, preaching that the Kingdom of God would reside, not in a Temple of bricks and wood in Jerusalem, but within each person. He even seemed to hint that he himself was this new Temple, which could be torn down, but in three days would be restored.
It would be wrong to consider the Pharisees the ‘baddies’ of the Gospels. As a group they tried to understand and interpret the Laws passed down to them by Moses and those who followed him. They too awaited the coming of the Messiah and longed for freedom from Rome. They saw in Jesus a threat to their own power and authority, but also they saw a threat to the very survival of Israel.
Within the Pharisees there were some who heard Jesus and were impressed. They were open to his message and liked him. Some took time to get to know him and found him also open to them and their role within the Law.
Unlike the quote at the start, it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus did not ‘hate’ the Pharisees, nor did he ‘hate’ “Pharisaism with a deep, living, Godlike hatred.” In fact Jesus respected them and their role within Judaism.
What Jesus did hate was hypocrisy. If the Kingdom he preached lived within each person, then honesty and trust were essential. Without them the Kingdom of God was impossible. Hypocrisy more than anything else destroys honesty and trust. It simply could not co-exist with the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom Jesus preached was for all people, Pharisees, prostitutes, tax collectors, Romans, sick, healthy, rich, poor….. All have an equal place in God’s Kingdom.
In this Gospel, as in so many Gospels we read, we see Jesus refuse to accept hypocrisy in any guise. He condemns it in the Pharisees, just as he does in his own Apostles and friends, and just as he does in me and in you.
Whenever we see Jesus interact with the Pharisees we could well substitute ourselves for them.
There were pharisees who were friends with Jesus, who warned him of a plot to kill him, who ate with him and buried him with the full respect of the Law.
What Jesus rejected was anyone who put wealth, power, status, position, prestige or reputation before any other person.
Are those who flee injustice and terror, risking their lives for nothing other than a chance to live in peace, any less than we are? No. Should they have fewer rights than we do or be treated with less respect than we are? No.
Anyone, including me and you who talks about any group of people as ‘criminals’, ‘illegals’, ‘rapists’, ‘less important than we are in society’ is guilty of hypocrisy if we claim to be Christians.
This is what Jesus condemns in this week’s Gospel,
Hypocrisy does not live in a ‘group’ but within the individuals who make up that Group.
The Kingdom of God as peached by Jesus lives within each one of us. The message of Jesus is that there is no room within us for the Kingdom of God and for hypocrisy. One must give way to the other.
We must choose which!
|Gospel Matthew 21:28-32|