In the previous post I tried to walk us through a bit of the history of Israel that led to the Pharisees being in 1st century Palestine at the time of Jesus. Hopefully that was clear enough.This is the next part.
When it comes to Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees we’re left primarily with the 4 gospels being the main source material regarding the conflicts therein. If it surprises you that more people weren’t struggling to spell out those specific interactions…well, that’s the way of it. Forgive me for summaries, there’s just too much scripture to have to quote it all the time in a blog post. Sloppy perhaps, but hey. It’s a blog.
The Pharisees’ Beef with Jesus
As I mentioned before, the Pharisees were where the role of interpreting Moses was filled. To me it seems clear enough that the issue on their end with Jesus was a blend of at least two things. At the very least it had to do with power and authority, in some ways those could be the same thing, but I see them as two interrelated topics.
Most of the complaints against Jesus by Pharisees seem to come in the form of complaints about Jesus’ behavior on the Sabbath and his willingness to associate to those that didn’t follow Torah (read “Sinners”). It had to do with his interpretation of Mosaic law, the interaction therein with his use of the oral tradition, and the way he responded to the divided society that was the result of the Hellenization of Israel.
You might say that His actions and statements directly–and deliberately–undercut the Pharisees station and authority in Jewish society whenever a conflict arose. Their piety is regarded as false, hurtful, and generally misguided. (Matthew 23) Their position as key interpreters of Mosaic law is flouted. The rug had been pulled from under their feet.
Suddenly the people used to being listened to, appreciated, and celebrated as the true keepers of all that was genuinely Jewish found themselves and their tradition to be challenged. Defeated even. I don’t think they ever won any of their many debates with Jesus. The marginalized, the outcast, the poor, the lame, the “sinners” were the people who were welcomed. They were healed, preached to, and made disciples.
It seems that the neat delineations that the Pharisees had spent roughly 300 years making and emphasizing in society were being blurred. Jews who failed at following Torah (at living an orthodox Jewish lifestyle), those who colluded with the oppressive powers, etc… All of these people were being welcomed. Even to the point of being made the in-group. These were the people Jesus lived, ate, walked, and spent the majority of his time around.
In the course of His ministry Jesus was somehow able to strip the Pharisees of the thing that ultimately gave them the ability to be the ones calling the shots on that which was authentically Jewish and what was not. He removed their ability to sit in the seat of Moses. With the loss of authority over what following Torah meant in the lives of common Jewish folks, they lost their power. I think it might be a big deal.
People living in an oppressed society who have been able to eke out a means of surviving by being the ones in control over what it means to belong suddenly find themselves, their authority to interpret the defining feature of their community, and several generations of the wisdom of Rabbis left facing skepticism from the same people who (prior to this three year slap in the face) did everything they wanted . I guess it makes sense why they didn’t like him.
Having said this we can move to…
Jesus’ Issue with the Pharisees
As you may have noticed in scripture, sermons, and this small blog post series…Jesus wasn’t a fan of the Pharisees. Why? What was the issue?
I think the main idea that comes to me is one relating to a pretty common biblical theme. I see Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees being tied into their role as shepherds of Israel.
Many people have discussed the theme of shepherd many times over. Many, many times. I will spare you the majority of it and tell you something I had not heard relating to it until very recently. A new pastor at my church recently gave a sermon in which she (oh yes, I said she. 🙂 ) mentioned a trip she had taken through the countryside of the UK. As she walked she passed herds and herds of sheep. It became a defining feature of the trip. As she went, she noticed something.
When the sheep were poorly taken care of she did not blame the sheep. She blamed the shepherd.
It was not so much of an indignant response of “You there, Sheep. Have some self-respect!” as it was a sad and angry reply of, “Who is the person that was supposed to be taking care of you that let you get so run-down?”
I thought this was brilliant in terms of our discussion. This is more or less exactly the case. Except that instead of a hiker, the one finding fault with the shepherds is the Messiah of the Jewish people. The creator of the people in question. I think it makes sense that he’s furious.
You see, to sit in the seat of Moses wasn’t just about sitting. It’s about leading the people of Israel faithfully to the place that YHWH was calling them. When the Israelites first exit Egypt in Exodus 19 and arrive at Mt. Sinai, God says that they are to be a priestly Kingdom and a Holy Nation. When I read that it stands out to me that priests are supposed to intercede for God on behalf of the people and vice versa. A nation of priests, set apart (holy) for the task would represent God to the world. Moses was lead them by following God in this.
I find it fascinating that in Exodus the Israelites start to complain against Moses. They ask him if he led them into the desert to die. He goes to God and says, “Your people are complaining against me!” God replies, “No, they’re complaining against me.” Moses interpreting scripture wasn’t the point. He was the one pointing to God.
When this idea is carried by Israel into the promised land, into a kingdom, into exile, out of exile, oppression by Alexander the Great, back into a kingdom, and finally oppressed by Rome it seems that the core of that was lost. The shepherds who had replaced Moses had failed the sheep. Think of the contrast between what you see in Jesus and what you see in the Pharisees in the Gospels.
Jesus constantly redirects the “sinners” to grace, forgiveness, welcome, and healing. Whereas the Pharisees are consumed with having all of life fit into their framework of what is faithful living. To the extent of excluding the aforementioned things (essential to who God is) from their interactions with people around them. They seem to have forgotten the point of faithfulness, of what being a shepherd is all about, of the goal of sitting in the seat of Moses. They missed the mark in that their piety was meant to lead people deeper into covenantal relationship with YHWH and therein lead the world with them.
This seems to me to be a substantial part of what Jesus is furious about. The shepherds had failed the sheep and were belligerent about their opinion that this was not the case. The true shepherd (John 10) of Israel came personally and saw what the state of His flock was. The owner of the Vineyard sent his son to check on what was happening (Matthew 21) and the tenants had blown it. Moreover, the shepherds didn’t care that this was the case.
At times I feel badly for the Pharisees. It seems as though they didn’t really have much of a way to escape the legalism and cloistered in-group perspective with regard to Judaism that they owned, lived, and taught. They were up against the wall to do their best with what they had, but it still wasn’t enough. My friend Duane said a few weeks ago, “It seems like they were set-up to fail.”
I don’t know what to say about this idea. At some level it seems straightforward enough. The argument seems to be, “shouldn’t Jesus cut them some slack? They were doing their best…” Unfortunately, I don’t think this perspective really takes into account the fullness of the issue. I think that the issue is less about Jesus’ rebuke of them than it was their response to it.They did not see the need to change.
If someone does their best at a task and drops the ball a little I imagine you might say, “Well, try again.” But when that mistake, rooted in the human condition becomes ironed into the fabric of tradition over the course of 300ish years and results in the further bondage of those already oppressed…the One who called Moses to set His people free should genuinely not be pleased. I think Jesus should be furious to find that the leadership who represent at least 300 years of the religious tradition of Israel have blown their role of shepherding the people. He should be furious (and sad) that they fail to hear His prophetic of voice in their midst calling them to own their failures.
I think they truly do earn their own rebukes.
Hope for the Weary
In all of this, I find myself grateful for Jesus. A Jesus who lets people have it who shore up their own failures with self-righteousness, a Jesus who welcomes the outcasts, a Jesus who meets us in our brokenness and calls us into the very life of God.
It’s important that as we read the text, we think deeply about how we are called to be disciples of Christ. Because when we read the text as Christians that’s who we are. We’re meant to read ourselves into the confused, bumbling, doubting, childish, and somehow faithful disciples.
The Pharisees serve as sign posts for us. They leave me with this question: How do we inculcate habits of the mind, hand, and heart that lead us to a place where we can hear God speak?
Let us focus on Christ in our midst so that when he calls us to follow Him to places that cost us our authority, our power, and our privilege we may walk in solidarity with Him who walks in solidarity with us.