Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Pharisees

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 7:1-8

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

In Buechner’s book The Faces of Jesus, he talks about what the gospel writers say, and don’t say, about Jesus. It was clear what he thought about the Pharisees.

The writers of the Gospels make no attempt to show how he fitted into the religio-political complexities of first century Israel but only how he fitted into the hearts of those who believed in him. They make no attempt either to depict his personality, to suggest the way he walked, talked, the kind of things that made him laugh, his attitude toward his friends, his family. There are only hints of these matters, to be read differently by each who reads them.

There seems to be a kind of sad humor about some of his parables—the man who tries to sleep through his friend's importunate midnight knocking; the rich man trying to squeeze into Paradise like a camel through a needle's eye—and one can imagine him smiling as he told them, but maybe the smile is only one's own. What seems to have made him angriest was hypocrisy and irrelevance, and thus it is the Pharisees who come in for his strongest attacks, the good people who should have known better. "You brood of vipers," he called them. "How can you speak good when you are evil?"