Being an itinerant ('hit-run') preacher has some advantages. I remember a Sunday evening service in a conservative church in rural Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions... And they knew their Bibles, and were proud of that. It was a smallish group, so I decided to engage them in dialogue:
'Who knows who the Pharisees were?' They did. 'The Pharisees got a pretty nasty press in the New Testament - particularly Matthew.'
'Now tell me all the good things you can think of about the Pharisees.' I wrote them up on a blackboard:
The Pharisees knew their Bibles; were disciplined in prayer; fasted twice a week; gave about a third of their income to their church; were moral (very moral); many had been martyred for their faith; they attended 'church' regularly; they were evangelical/orthodox; and evangelistic (Jesus said they'd even cross the ocean - a fearful thing for Jews - to win a convert).
There was a deep silence. I asked 'Peter' sitting at the front: 'What's wrong?' He pointed to the list and said 'That's us!' 'Is it?" I responded. 'Then you've got a problem: Jesus said these sorts of people are children of the devil!'
Then we did an inductive exercise on the question: 'What's so wrong with this list of admirable qualities?' Short answer: it omits what was most important for Jesus. Whenever in the Gospels he used a prefatory statement like 'This is the greatest/most important thing of all...' none of the above were emphasized by him.
So what was Jesus' emphasis? Yes, loving God, loving others, seeking first the kingdom = obeying God the King ... And, from two Gospel verses the evangelicals/orthodox have rarely noticed - Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42 - justice/love, mercy, faith.
None of these were on the Pharisees' list. But they're the most important of all, according to Jesus. Have you noticed items like justice/love don't get into our creeds or confessions of faith or 'doctrinal statements' either :-) ? (I've written a book about that: Recent Trends Among Evangelicals ).
Back to the Pharisees. Our text (Matthew 12:1-21) is about the problem of religious 'scrupulosity'... Jesus and his disciples were walking on the Sabbath through the fields on their way to the synagogue, to church, and they were hungry. So as the law (Deuteronomy 23:25) allowed, they plucked some ears of corn to eat. The Pharisees had problems with their 'reaping' on the sabbath. In fact, the disciples were breaking four of the Pharisees' 39 rules about work on the sabbath: technically they were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal!
Now the modern picture of the Pharisees almost certainly trivializes - or demonizes - their piety These were good people with good motives. But they were 'good people in the worst sense of the word'. More of that later...
Jesus' response is to argue from two precedents (lawyers/legalists are at home there) - precedents about necessity and service. David and his friends were hungry, so ate the forbidden bread (though note that when King Uzziah invaded the sacred area from another motive - pride - he was struck with leprosy, 2 Chronicles 26:16). Then the priests did a lot of 'work' on the sabbath - killing and sacrificing animals: so Jesus is saying that if sabbath-work has to do with the necessities of life and duties of sacred service, it's O.K. and the *spirit* of the fourth commandment is not violated. Then Jesus reinforces all this with three arguments: someone greater than the temple is here; God wants mercy to have priority over sacrifice; and 'the Son of man is lord of the sabbath'. Or, as the New Interpreters' Bible Commentary puts it (in a way that would appeal to a rabbinical way of arguing): 'Since the priests sacrifice according to the law on the sabbath, sacrifice is greater than the sabbath. But mercy is greater than sacrifice... so mercy is greater than the sabbath' (Abingdon, 1995, p.278). I like Eugene Peterson's translation of this section in The Message: 'There is far more at stake than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant - "I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual" - you wouldn't be nitpicking like this.'
Then we have the story of the man with the withered hand. Jerome, the fourth century bishop-scholar, says some ancient Gospels tell us his name was Caementarius - a bricklayer - and he said to Jesus: 'Please heal my hand so that I can earn a living by bricklaying rather than begging'. The Pharisees challenge him: 'Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?' Now there's a technicality behind that question, and Jewish scribes used to debate it: is it lawful for a physician to heal on the sabbath? If the answer's 'yes' how about someone else, like a prophet? The Shammaite Pharisees did not allow praying for the sick on the sabbath, but the followers of Hillel allowed it. Arguments, arguments: 'arguments by extension' to which Jesus answers with an 'argument by analogy'. If the sabbath laws allow you to help a sheep, why not a person? (But then, the Essenes wouldn't have rescued a sheep either: gets complicated!).
So Jesus healed the man. Two notes at this point:
#1 Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, to do as much as he could. Jesus often did that in his healings. It's the same today: we get help any way we can, and do what we can. Jesus still heals: sometimes slowly (always slowly in cases of sexual/emotional abuse), sometimes instantly; sometimes with, sometimes without, the help of medicine...
#2 I was a co-speaker at a conference with the Dr Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world. He said: 'Every miracle recorded in the New Testament, including the raising of the dead, has also happened in Korea: we are praying for some miracles not mentioned in the Bible, nor recorded in Christian history. Like the replacement of a limb - an arm or a leg - that's not there . We're believing God for that...!' Do what you like with that one!
We ought to make a little excursus at this point. What's the Sabbath all about? Two things, basically: faith and rest. Faith that God will supply our needs if we don't have to work all the time; and rest so that our lives will be in balance. As you know, I counsel clergy: that's what John Mark Ministries is about. They're often burned out. But when they are, it's almost always associated with a failure to take the idea and practice of sabbath seriously. They don't take a day off: a day off is any day (for pastors it's often Thursday) when from getting up to going to bed at night you are not preoccupied with your vocation. Isn't it interesting that in our leisure-oriented culture, there's also more fatigue? A lot of people are just plain tired. The five-day work week is a recent innovation, but 'leisure' and 'sabbath-rest' are not the same. Gordon McDonald, in his excellent book Ordering Your Private World has a chapter 'Rest Beyond Leisure' which I urge you to read. He writes: 'God was the first "rester"...Does God need to rest? Of course not. But did God choose to rest? Yes. Why? Because God subjected creation to a rhythm of rest and work that he revealed by observing the rhythm himself, as a precedent for everyone else... [For us] this rest is a time of looking backward. We gaze upon our work and ask questions like: "What does my work mean? For whom did I do all this work? How well was my work done? Why did I do all this? What results did I expect, and what did I receive?" To put it another way, the rest God instituted was meant first and foremost to cause us to interpret our work, to press meaning into it, to make sure we know to whom it is properly dedicated' (Highland, 1985, pp.176-7).
The Pharisees had lost sight of the essence of the sabbath. Alister McGrath says in his NIV Bible Commentary: 'The Sabbath was instituted to give people refreshment, rather than to add to their burdens' (H&S, 1995, p.242). Precisely how you keep the Sabbath today will be governed by love for God and neighbour, and the kind of work you do. If you're a manual worker, rest. If you're sedentary, do something physical. Make sure it's 'recreational' for you - re-creating your body, mind, emotions and spirit.
Jesus healed... and 'the Pharisees conspired... how to destroy him' - destroy the One through whom we have life. (When you're beaten by goodness, reason and miracle, you have no other option but rage). And 'great crowds followed Jesus'. They knew he loved them. He taught them and healed them. While the Pharisees were into destroying, Jesus was healing. The Scottish Baptist preacher Matthew Henry makes a good point here: though some are unkind to us, we must not on that account be unkind to others.
Sometimes I talk to a pastor who is being 'destroyed' by Pharisees. They are still with us. Why? It's all about what American social scientists call 'mindsets': the mindset of the Pharisee and that of the prophet are antithetical: they can't get along. Let me explain.
The Pharisee is concerned about law: how to do right. Now there's nothing wrong with that as it stands. Except for one thing: you can keep the law and in the process destroy persons. I have a friend who lectured in law in one of our universities, before he got out of it all in disgust. He said with some conviction: 'The whole of our Western legal system is sick, unjust. For one thing: if you're rich, and can afford the cleverest advocacy, you have a pretty good chance of not going to gaol; but not if you're poor.' There's something wrong with a system supposed to preserve 'fairness' when double-standards operate...
There's a tension between law and love. Law is to love as the railway tracks are to the train: the tracks give direction, but all the propulsive power is in the train. Tracks on their own may point somewhere, but they're cold, lifeless things. But love without law is like a train without tracks: plenty of noise and even movement but lacking direction. Both law and love ultimately come from God. We need God's laws to know how to set proper boundaries and behave appropriately: without good laws we humans will destroy one another. Prophets, in the biblical sense, try to tie law and love into each other. The O.T. prophets were always encouraging the people of God to keep the law of God. But the greatest commandment is love: love of God and of others.
The Australian Uniting Church Interim Report on Sexuality looks at these two issues. It answers one of them very well and the other poorly. The question: 'How can homosexuals (etc.) know they're loved by us?' is addressed with deep compassion. Marginalized people ought to feel they're accepted in our churches. But they don't, generally, so we're more like the Pharisees than Jesus in that respect. (I once discussed the issue of the legalization of brothels with a couple of women from the Prostitutes' Collective on ABC TV. In the middle of it, one of them turned to me and said, 'You Christians hate us, don't you?' How would you have responded?).
But the other question: 'What is God's will in God's word-in- Scripture about all this?' is answered poorly in the UC report. It gives us permission to be revisionist when it comes to the clear mandates of Scripture, and that's not on, for a follower of Jesus. He came not to set aside God's law, but to fulfil it, by embodying the great law of love in himself.
Tony Campolo, interviewed on ABC radio, was asked 'Tony, what are your views on homosexuality and the church?' Tony: 'I am conservative on this issue: I believe erotic attraction between members of the same sex is not God's intention for us.' 'Ah-huh, so what should the church do?' Tony: 'The last thing the church should do is to be legalistically prescriptive about the behaviour of people like homosexuals. We have to do more - much more - than simply prescribe celibacy for other people!' (The interviewer didn't know where to go after that!).
For some of my views on LGBTI issues see my critique of the Evangelical Alliance's recent publication Beyond Stereotypes .
The last section of our Gospel reading takes all this further: Jesus the prophet was fulfilling the Scriptures. As God's chosen servant whom God loves and in whom God delights, Jesus was a meek Messiah, not a warlike one. And he 'proclaims justice' (v.18), indeed 'brings justice to victory' (v.19). Now why is justice so big for prophets - and for Jesus (but not for Pharisees)? Hang in there. Fasten your seat-belts. There's some turbulence coming as we close.
First a word to the prophets in this congregation. 'Prophets'? 'Here?' Sure. Well, who are they, and why don't they - or the church - know who they are? Why don't we recognize and commission them? Why don't we hear them speak a special revelation of God to us? Ah, there are several answers to that. Mainly, of course, prophets are somewhat unpredictable. I'm studying the second half of Jeremiah at the moment to write some Scripture Union notes: here's a guy who tells the king and the army to surrender to the enemy, otherwise they'll be wiped out and/or carted off into captivity. Not the sort of message to stiffen the resistance of your armed forces! So they tossed him into a septic tank. Prophets disturb the comfortable; pastors comfort the disturbed. But we don't want to be disturbed. And so the church organizes its life - its doctrines (like 'prophecy isn't needed anymore, we've got the Bible, and preachers') and its structures (by-laws and committees to cover everything) to exclude this more spontaneous 'word from the Lord.' And prophets tend to major on social justice which isn't nice for middle-class people - more about that in a moment.
But you can't get away from the high priority the early church and the Hebrew people put on prophecy.
What is this gift? 'The gift of prophecy is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to receive and communicate an immediate message from God to his people through a divinely-anointed utterance' (Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, Regal, 1979, p.228). Prophecy isn't just predicting the future, though it can include prediction. Prophets aren't always right: so they ought to be in submission to the leadership of the church. Prophets aren't adding a 67th book to the Bible. The canon of Scripture is closed: the prophet is simply bringing a biblically-relevant message from God to us today, for our situation. Are prophets sort of carried along by the Spirit? In a sense, yes. Michael Green writes: 'The Spirit takes over and addresses the hearers directly through [the prophet]. That is the essence of prophecy' (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Eerdmans, 1975, p.172). Do prophets tend to be political activists? Often yes - as in the Bible. And today, therefore, such people are unlikely to be pastors of churches - if a pastor has a prophetic gift they'd better have also an independent income! 'Since their message is frequently unpopular, they would feel restrained if they were too closely tied to an institution. And many church institutions feel uncomfortable with such prophets around too much... they tend to shun church bureaucracies and prefer to be outside critics' (Wagner, p.230). Now there are varying points of view - between and among Pentecostals and Evangelicals about the ministry of prophets, and this is as much as I want to say about it all here. Except for this: if God gives you a special message for your church, write it down, and give it to the leadership: and hold the leadership accountable about praying over it, and then leave the decision about whatever happens with it to them.
Let us go back to those two Gospel texts. Evangelicals (like me) have ignored for 500 years: Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42. Jesus is inveighing against the Pharisees, and saying that despite their religiosity they've missed the point - which is justice/love, mercy and faith. Justice comes first (as with the prophet's message Jesus is quoting: Micah 6:8). Why? Simple: justice is all about the right use of power; it's about fairness; it's about doing right - particularly for the poor and oppressed. Social justice is all about (it's *only* about) treating others as being made in God's image; human beings with respect and dignity and infinite worth. Justice is about the most important characteristic of human beings - their Godlikeness. Gays and lesbians, for example, aren't just individuals who parade their gayness in Mardi Gras festivals. They're made in the image of God. Hitler was made in the image of God; so was Stalin; so were Pol Pot and Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein... And so are the people in church next to you this morning. CSLewis says somewhere (The Weight of Glory?) that if we realized who the others really were with whom we were worshipping, we'd be tempted to fall down and worship *them*!
There's probably something of the Pharisee in all of us. We take two good gifts from God - law and truth - and create all sorts of legalisms and dogmatisms to save us the trouble of loving people we don't like. What is your spiritual 'achilles' heel'? How does the devil get to you? One of our '18 questions' for retreatants asks: 'For what non-altruistic motives are you in ministry?'
Have you noticed that in the ministry of Jesus, the message of repentance was mainly aimed at religious people, church-folk, like us? When we elevate law over love; rules and precedents and structures above persons; when social justice is not at the top of our agenda; then we've got some repenting to do. Pharisees are people who know the Bible and miss the point. Lord help us!
(P.S. The statement about 'trivializing the Pharisees' refers to several problems biblical scholars have about the Pharisees in the NT in general and Matthew in particular. See, eg. the excellent article on the subject in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992)
Updated October 2011