Saturday, January 21, 2017

Pharisees and Sadducees

The word "Pharisee" is rather common in modern speech. It usually means hypocrit, or self-righteous, or the like. We get this characterization from the Gospels, where the Pharisees seem to be the principal opponent of Jesus and his message. Turn to Matthew 23 and you will find all the vitriol that Jesus can muster against them. "You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?"

No such words for the Sadducees. The one time Jesus seems to interact with them at all, it is merely to respond to a riddle by which they hope to trip him up in his belief in the resurrection of the dead. All in all, they seem very minor characters. The Pharisees are the real bad guys.

And so I see many attacks on conservative Christians as "Pharisees." They maintain traditional beliefs about sexuality, marriage, and abortion. For such views they are branded as self-righteous bigots, the kind that Jesus most fiercely chastised.

Yet in the Bible, those closest to God get the fiercest treatment. The prophets speak judgment against Israel's neighbors, yes, but the harshest critiques are reserved for Israel, and even more so for Judah and Jerusalem. It is important not to get too close to God, for he is "a consuming fire," as the people learned from Mount Sinai. They were so afraid after having heard the words of God, they didn't want to hear any more, and God told Moses they were right to think that way. Those who are closest to God have the greatest responsibility. And so Moses, the man who spoke to God face to face, was kept out of the promised land for the slighest offense (he hit the rock instead of speaking to it).

It is not a coincidence, then, that Jesus ends up alone. The ones who hand him over to be crucified are the ones who are closest to him--that is, the Pharisees. But even his own disciples abandon him--and one of them is a traitor. Although it is the Romans who actually kill him, it is those who should have been with him from beginning to end who receive the condemnation of Scripture. That is because the Scriptures are written for them, both as an offer of reconciliation and as a warning. It is our heart's greatest desire to be close to God; but the closer we are, the more it hurts to have our sins purged from us.

The Romans receive no condemnation whatsoever in the Gospel narratives; there is no need, for they are very far from Jesus. (Pilate reveals just how far with his famous question, "What is truth?" The Pharisees would never have asked such a question.)

The Sadducees, too, are far from Jesus. No, he doesn't call them hypocrites, or blind guides, or whitewashed tombs, or snakes, or brood of vipers. But he says to them, "You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God." What more is there to say?

Importantly, when Jesus responds this way to the Sadducees, the Pharisees gather together around him. They ask him what is the greatest commandment. And Jesus affirms exactly what they believe: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. The Pharisees do know the Scriptures and the power of God. They are not far from the kingdom.

It is their very proximity that earns them the greatest condemnation. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them." (Mt. 23:13) They are standing at the very gate, but they refuse to go in; worse, they refuse to let others go in.

So naturally this is a very serious warning for traditional Christians, who take righteousness seriously, as the Pharisees did. Those who are closest to God are closest to the fire of condemnation. If we wish to be pure in heart, so that we may see God, we must suffer the most. In some sense the Bible condemns the righteous even more than sinners.

But for those liberal Christians who think they are on the right side because they don't find Jesus condemning their position, I'm afraid they have it all backwards. To them Jesus simply says, "You know neither the Scripture nor the power of God." Of course Jesus is not offended by those who have completely abandoned the traditions of the church. He is only hurt by those close to him. He is hurt the most by his true disciples.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

To such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs

"Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." (Matthew 19:14) Jesus reproaches his disciples for thinking that the kingdom of God is primarily about adults. On the contrary, he insists. "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

Yet Paul's rhetoric is always the other way around. "I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food." (1 Cor. 3:1-2) "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." (1 Cor. 13:11)

So which is it? I am genuinely puzzled. Jesus also said, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4) Are children humble? Are they not mainly concerned with their own needs, desires, and feelings? As a new parent myself, I have many words to describe our beautiful baby boy, but I'm not sure "humble" would be one of them.

Or maybe there is humility in always screaming when one is in need, or even when one feels in need. The psalms are full of complaints which seem to abruptly transition into praise. Those who truly pray to God do not hold back. Even if their cry is entirely irrational, just like the cry of a young child ofen is, the comfort of knowing God hears is what counts.

Is there an ironic sort of maturity in this? The "wise" in Paul's are sometimes those who are wise according to the world, sometimes those who are spiritually wise. In Christ everything gets flipped upside down. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." (1 Cor. 1:27) This resonates much better with the sayings of Jesus.

Sometimes, I have learned, children's cries can only be calmed by subtle reminders of their parents' love. Our baby had quite a lot of difficulty learning to fall asleep alone. It was necessary to let him cry, a lot at first, less and less over time. Not that we were ever absent. We went into his room to gently remind him of our presence. It just wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to be in our arms, and especially to drink his mother's milk.

Maybe prayer is like that. At first we believe we need "milk, not solid food." In time we realize that the whole purpose of life is to gradually mature. Sometimes our prayers are only answered in the most subtle of ways. We cry ourselves to sleep at first, but we soon learn that we are truly not alone.

But it is not spiritual maturity to stop crying. The world is full of sadness, injustice, oppression, horrors of every kind. If we refuse to cry, it is only because our souls have forgotten that we have a Father in heaven. "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11)

Once again, the Christian life is a paradox. It means becoming more human by becoming more divine, more mature by becoming more childlike.