Sermon: Pentecost 22, 5 November 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 5th November 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

LEARNING FROM THE PHARISEES

 (Joshua 3:7-17; Ps 107:1-7,33-37; 1 Thess 3:5-13; Matthew 23:1-12)

Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees? They had been around as a recognizable group for a couple of centuries before the time of Jesus, and were devoted to putting into practice the Law of Moses. They believed that God’s blessing had been withheld because of Israel’s failure to keep the law. If at least some faithful people truly kept the Law of Moses, surely the Lord would again pour out blessing on his people!

The scribes were the legal experts, and they had made it their task to explain the implications of the law. Many of Moses’ commands were so general that they clearly needed to be spelt out in more detail. It’s one thing to say that people are not to work on the Sabbath Day: but what does that mean in practical terms? What food can you prepare? How far can you walk? How much weight can you carry? These kinds of questions were the focus of the scribes. And exactly what did you have to tithe? These and many questions were given extraordinarily detailed answers by the scribes, and the Pharisees lived to put them all into practice. Of course ordinary people would not even know all these details, let alone find it possible to obey them.

There were around 6000 Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They generally belonged to the wealthier classes, and were in a much better position than most to learn the details of the Law, as the scribes understood it, and were better able to find ways to make obedience practical for people like them.

The Pharisees were devoted and devout, and in many ways they would have been theologically in agreement with Jesus: with Jesus they acknowledged the message of the prophets and they shared a belief in the resurrection. And yet, Jesus always seemed to speak harshly about them and their ways. Why was he so critical of them, when in so many ways they genuinely tried to be good faithful people?

Well, Jesus wasn’t the only one who was critical of the Pharisees. Jewish writings of the era described seven types of Pharisees. There were the Shoulder Pharisees, who wore their good deeds on their shoulders, so that others would see how devoted they were. There were the Wait-a-Little Pharisees, who could always find a good reason why they couldn’t do a good deed just now. There were the Bruised or Bleeding Pharisees who felt it was so wrong to look at a woman on the streets that they shut their eyes and kept bumping into things. Of course their bruises and injuries were testament to their obvious piety.

And then there were the Hump-Backed (or perhaps hunch-backed) Pharisees who bent over as they walked, to demonstrate how humble they were. There were the Ever-Reckoning Pharisees who were constantly adding up all their good deeds to try to put themselves in credit with God. There were the Fearful Pharisees who were obsessed with every little detail of behaviour and ritual in case God saw a shortcoming, and condemned them in the judgement.

And finally there were the God-Fearing Pharisees who truly sought to live in obedience to the Law of God, and wanted to please the Lord above all things! The fact that only one of the seven categories of Pharisee is really described in a positive way indicates that, however much people admired their piety, many did not have a high regard for them.

And we can see that many of them fell into the same sorts of traps as religious people fall into today: using religion as a bargaining chip with God, trying to impress others with your piety, teaching one thing and doing another, being arrogant and judgemental against those who don’t share your doctrine or piety.

In this 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks very critically of the Scribes and Pharisees. If you think that he is severe in these opening verses of the chapter, you might be brave enough to look at the rest of the chapter later on, and see where he gets really scathing indeed.

So once again, I ask, why is Jesus so hard on these people, who are so serious about trying to obey the Law of the Lord? Jesus had said that much is expected of those who are given much. That applies in many areas of life, and it certainly applies in spiritual terms. The scribes and Pharisees had so much knowledge of the scriptures, and so much opportunity not only to learn them but to apply them. People inevitably must have looked to them as examples of godly living. And yet they got it so wrong! And the problem was not their basic doctrine: it was their outlook on life and their attitude to other people.

Jesus acknowledges that the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat: they have genuine knowledge of the Law of Moses. It is right to obey them when they teach that Law truly. But don’t follow their example, says Jesus: they do not practise what they preach! Their lives are not consistent with their words. They are guilty of hypocrisy.

The scribes had worked out an approach to the Law of Moses which worked for them, but was not possible for many other people. But they were not interested in the needs of others, even those who really did want to honour and serve the Lord. As far as they were concerned, they knew the way to please God: it was their way, or no way. Elsewhere, Jesus castigates the Pharisees for their attention to detail, generally detail worked out by their scribes, when the central call to trust and love the Lord God, and the call to love their neighbour as themselves, the real issues, got swamped and ultimately ignored in favour of those petty details.

Apart from their hypocrisy, Jesus also points to the Pharisees’ pride and arrogance. Here again, they love to make a show of their religion not to honour God, but to impress others. They pick up imagery from the books of Moses, and turn it into something else. They wear phylacteries on their foreheads and their left wrists: phylacteries are small leather cases holding small portions of the scriptures. Many people wore them, but the Pharisees made sure that theirs were bigger and more obvious.

Similarly with the tassels that people wore on the corners of their robes, in obedience to Moses’ call to wear them, to remind themselves of the commandments of God. The tassels wore by the Pharisees were specially large, once again as a show of piety rather than really helping them to remember the law of God.

Jesus observed how they used their piety as a vehicle for getting respect and honour from other people. He also pointed out how they loved being treated as important people: being called Rabbi, “great one”, or Father, or Leader. The Pharisees used these titles to feed their pride. They loved being in prominent positions at banquets and at the synagogue: it fed their egos.

Now of course someone usually needs to sit up the front at events and services, and we are used to particular titles being given to leaders within the church, and robes are worn by clergy and others, as part of our tradition. Are we any different from the Pharisees?

We may not be different enough, but we certainly need to beware of the traps. I and other clergy especially need to beware of the traps of authority and leadership. Some parishioners may feel more comfortable calling me “Father”, and that is OK, but I need always to remember that first and foremost I am your brother in Christ. And I need to remember that I am called to serve in ministry, not to focus on any importance I might think I have. We need to sit lightly on the traditions and practices that can easily make us think that we might be better or more important than others.

And when we become aware of the weaknesses or mistakes or shortcomings of others, we need to remember that we all fall short, and that none of us is entitled to be judge of others. We are all in the same boat, and we are called to love, not to judge.

What then can we learn from the Pharisees? We can learn from their devotion to the scriptures. We can learn from them that it is important to seek to live lives that genuinely please God.

But we can also learn from their shortcomings. We need to beware of hypocrisy in our lives: presenting ourselves as better than we really are, presenting others with an image of ourselves that is less than honest. We need to beware of thinking of ourselves as better than others. Yes, other people’s faults will sometimes be evident to us, but do we not have our own shortcomings and failings? We need to beware of pride and arrogance. Yes, we all need love and respect: so let’s give it to our neighbours, knowing that God loves us and counts us as precious in his sight. Let’s help each other humbly along the Christian path, reaching out to those we can help.

And let’s keep in mind that the greatest human who ever lived is the one who became our servant, sacrificially giving his life so that we might have life. Whatever we learn from the Pharisees, we have the perfect Rabbi and teacher and leader, Jesus Christ our loving Saviour. He truly shows us how to live and love and serve. Amen.

Paul Weaver