Sunday, September 1, 2013

We The Pharisees

The second dictionary definition for "Pharisee" is:
( lowercase ) a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.
I've heard a lot of sermons in my time that seem to take that as the primary, if not only, definition. It's a lazy form of Gospel exegesis I've heard in both mainline and evangelical settings: the Pharisees are the Bad Guys, hating on Jesus because he challenges their legalistic, strictly-regimented worldview with his unprecendented message of ~love and grace~. Last week, the Pharisees were scandalized when Jesus broke their needlessly inflexible Sabbath rules, because he just loves so much more and understands God so much better than they do. This week, the Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner solely for the purposes of catching him out, because they're unnerved by his popularity as a demagogue and they're looking for any reason to come down on him like a ton of bricks.

This reading bugs the hell out of me.

For a start, the careless conflation of "Pharisee" (definition 1) with "pharisee" (definition 2) is emblematic of the thoughtless antisemitism that pervades contemporary Christianity. If you think that Jesus had a completely new message of a fuzzy-hugs-and-puppies God that radically contrasts with an angry-and-smiting "Old Testament" God, well, you're not very good at history, Hebrew Bible, or New Testament, and you're casually perpetuating deeply embedded anti-Judaism to boot.

This week in particular, note also that the notion that the dinner invitation was solely a trick to catch Jesus out – a "keep your enemies closer" maneuver – is only one possible reading, and not a very generous one. Luke 14:1 only says that the Pharisees "were watching [Jesus] closely." I have a lot of sympathy with that. If I were dining with Jesus, I would certainly be watching him closely, because – as most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, agree – he is a very interesting person.

Which brings me to my main point. It's kind of an obvious one, but it's not emphasized nearly enough in the church settings I've experienced (perhaps because we Christians tend to be wedded to our mostly-nonsensical persecution complex). It is this:

We are the Pharisees.

We – by which I mean myself and many of my friends: clergy, students of religion, Christian bloggers, pretty much anyone in the US who ascribes to and actively supports the faith that dominates the cultural and political landscape – shouldn't be finding our own faces in Jesus or his disciples or the people he heals when we read the Gospels. When we read stories of Jesus' encounters with religious authorities, we should recognize ourselves as the religious authorities, because we are. We are the ones with doctrine and dogma. We are the ones with strict rules about when and how things must be done (seriously, have you ever seen a congregation's reaction to even minor changes in liturgy? I myself am guilty of losing my shit because one Sunday someone I didn't know sat in my pew). We are the ones who preach the radical love of the Kingdom of God while continuing to participate in and perpetuate indefensibly corrupt and unjust systems. We are the hypocrites.

I think we're reading these stories all wrong. For far too long Christians have been identifying with Jesus and his followers, feeding our self-righteous persecution complex by imagining that our weekly churchgoing somehow challenges power structures and explodes exclusivist dogma. It's demonstrably the other way around.

Reading the Pharisees as ourselves offers a double-edged redemption. First, by sympathizing with the Pharisees, we can begin to redeem them from their ignominious history of being synonymous with cartoonish villainy in casually anti-Jewish Christian discourse. Second, by finding their flaws in ourselves, we can ourselves be censured by Jesus' critiques.

He's been telling us what we're doing wrong for nearly two thousand years. It's about time we listened.

1 comment:

  1. Yes. Thank you for putting into such eloquent words the thoughts I have been mulling for years.