In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees about what is really important in life. They have a basic theological difference because the officials think that obeying the complex rules for piety are what it's all about. Proper washing of the hands, kosher eating, and ritual observances were the key things for the Pharisees. Jesus makes the point that these things don't really matter at all. It's what comes out of you that counts, he says. It's what you say and do to others that matters. As you well know, Jesus and the Pharisees never got it worked out because the rift was too basic and too deep to be bridged in just three years of wrangling.
We Christians have been on Jesus' side for a long time -- for so long that we've lost most of the respect we might have had for the Pharisees. In the Gospels I think of them the way I do the teams that play the Harlem Globetrotters. They're not supposed to win. They are just there so the real stars can show their stuff. To the Gospel writers, the Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees were that kind of cannon fodder for Jesus. But the leaders of Judaism were not dummies. They came to their conclusions in faith and with reason--but they were wrong. I would like to tell you a little of their story and then look at how the basic differences between the Jewish leaders and Jesus are still being played out in our own day.
To understand the leaders of Jesus' day, you have to start more than 500 years before Jesus was born. Our spiritual ancestors believed that they were the chosen people of God and that God would never let them down. They believed that God was based in the temple in Jerusalem and that, therefore, God would never let anything happen to Jerusalem. There could be hard times, of course, but ultimately God would save them. Most of us, if we admit it, have something in our mind or heart that we feel God will certainly protect. For many of us it is our life after death. For others, it is a more vulnerable hope such as the well-being of our children or even the traditions of our churches. The point is that to our ancestors God's care for the temple in Jerusalem was the one sure thing of their faith. But 587 years before the birth of Christ, the unimaginable happened. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the temple was destroyed. The Babylonians took the leaders of Jerusalem away into exile, and no one was allowed to return for 50 years. An incredible blow!
And when they got back, they had some serious thinking to do. Some, of course, gave up on God altogether as many people we know give up when their assumptions about God are overturned. But most of them stayed with it and tried to figure out what all of this meant. What had gone wrong? They figured they had failed God in some major way. They had missed the point so they were left wondering what the real point might be. Stated somewhat secularly--what are the interests of God, what does God think is important about the way we live our lives? There were many theories. If you read Isaiah, you will find him arguing that the problem was that God's people had become isolated from the world and its problems. God's interests, said Isaiah, are in people caring for others in God's name, involved in the world and its pain. If you read Ezra and Nehemiah, you will find the opposite argument. God's interest is in purity and in keeping people undefiled by the world. It is not engagement with others but avoidance of them that pleases God.
It was not an easy debate nor was there a quick resolution. The debate still goes on today because each side has a piece of truth to it. Is the church primarily holy space, separate from the world in its confusion, or is the church a launching pad for service and a gathering place for the least and the lost? Do we come to church to get away from the world or to get into it in new ways? Is the business of the church to look after its own or to risk getting tangled up with others? Does the separation of church and state mean the separation of church and politics or the church and community issues? Just what is the proper relationship between the people of God and nonbelievers? People of faith and reason can make good points on all sides of those questions.
To make a long story shorter--it may be too late now to make it short--the Ezra and Nehemiah folks carried the day. Judaism decided that God wanted them to be separate from the world. God wanted them to be pure and spotless. The word Pharisee means literally "separate ones." Over the years the idea of separating the good folks from the bad folks got a little out of hand. The more ritual you observe the more you were different from others, and therefore the holier you were. That is the world into which Jesus was born. And when Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, do you remember what he decided to read from? Right! It was Isaiah--one of those on the losing side 500 years before. Jesus chose the passage that says he is sent to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, preach to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and set free those who suffer. It is exactly opposite the view of the Pharisees who said that good people should be separated from the world. He was basically saying that the community made the wrong choice when it chose purity over involvement, ritual over service. After 500 years of looking at it one way, you can see why the Pharisees and others had trouble understanding things differently, but we have had 2,000 years of Jesus' point in the argument, and we still struggle with it.
I do not want to take up the ancient argument of faith as a call for separateness or a call to engagement. You can do that on your own. I would like to try to state what I understand to be Jesus' side of the argument with the Pharisees in a little different way so that we can perhaps get a better grip on it.
The basic question has to do with the interests of God. What does God expect from us? If we would serve God, what service does God want? That was the basic question that got the Pharisees off on the wrong track, and it's the question that still must be answered by people who want to be faithful.
As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God is enormously concerned for those who are not doing very well in life. You can see it in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the Magnificat, the parables, the laws of the Old Testament, and elsewhere. In observing the human race, God's binoculars are always on the back of the pack. We please God when our concern is similarly focused. Who do you know that hurts, who is feeling the pain of loss? Who is at the back of the pack in your part of the world? That person or those people represent an opportunity for us to serve the interests of God.
As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God is a gathering God. The force that brooded over the multiverse of chaos and ordered it into the universe that we know is a gathering God--that which calls people from their individuality into relationships and relationships into families, families into clans, clans to tribes, tribes to nations, and nations into harmony. That force is from a gathering God, the one who manifests himself in the healing miracles of Jesus and the invitation that all be one as Jesus and the Father are one, is a gathering God. The barriers that divide people are anathema to such a God, and those who would serve the interest of God will be busy reaching across the barriers of life and removing the barricades. What are the divisions in your family? Your community? What is there in your life that tiptoes around divisions and disconnects? Those pieces of your life provide an opportunity to serve the interests of God.
As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God's wish for all people is joy. The one who pronounced creation good at its beginnings is into joy. Jesus, who said that the purpose of his coming was to let us share the joy of God so that our own joy would be complete, that God is into joy. He who offers us peace that passes understanding is into joy. Those who would serve the interests of God can do so by giving expression to joy in their lives. Those who feel the embrace of such a joyful God have much to offer the hurting and disconnected of our world. In the beauty of the day or in the people of your life, in the promises of God or in the facts of your own blessedness, in the resources you have to share or the grace with which you can receive, there are opportunities to serve the interests of God.
Jesus and the Pharisees were arguing a very basic point. What do faithful people do to be faithful? What are the interests of God and how do we serve them? Ritual is important and so is the manner and the degree to which we are distinct from the world around us. There can be no doubt about that. The Pharisees have a good point. Jesus seems to be saying that engagement with the world is even more important. Each of us still has to figure out what that means in our own lives.
Let us pray.
Blessed Lord, you call us to represent you in the world without becoming the same as the world. We find it hard as our spiritual ancestors did before us. We need your guidance, Lord, and we thank you for giving it to us. Help us to be a people who can keep our balance among the many truths you have given us, that we might serve you faithfully, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.