Pharisees and Faithfulness

One of the popular activities on social media has been the “who are you” quizzes. Answer a set of questions and find out which character from a famous movie, book or television series you are most like.  I took one the other day and found out that I am Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, the idealistic, impetuous young hero of the first trilogy.  As flattering as that may sound, I see myself more like the old Obi-wan Kenobi played by Sir Alec Guinness – crusty, but wise, with a hint of a mysterious past.  Of course, I could never pull off those really cool Jedi mind tricks.  “These are not the droids you are looking for….”  (On second thought, that might be a great way to get out of some particularly awkward committee work.)  I took another quiz and found out that I am a combination of Scotty and Dr. McCoy from the original Star Trek.  (“I’m a doctor, not an engineer!  No wait! Maybe I am an engineer!”)

Anyway, I got to thinking, what if there were quizzes to determine who you were most like in the New Testament?  It could have examples of apostles, key players like Apollos, Barnabas, Cornelius, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, not to mention some of the bad influences like the scribes and Pharisees, Ananias and Sapphira, Demetrius the silversmith, Diotrephes, Hymenaeus, Philetus…the list could go on.

Or maybe there could be a Jeff Foxworthy style catalog of descriptors: “You might be a Pharisee if….”  Or maybe a game where you answer questions about biblical laws and their interpretations.  You could call it “Who Wants to Be a Pharisee?”  Or back to Foxworthy, maybe something like “Are You Smarter than a Pharisee?”  Sure, that might sound humorous on the surface, but the serious reality is far from humorous. 

To be a Pharisee has a rather negative connotation owing to the comments gleaned from the New Testament.  The practice of Pharisaism arose during the intertestamental period, as one of at least three lines of Jewish thought: the elitist, paradoxically spiritually conservative but socially liberal Sadducees, the ascetic Essenes, and the Pharisees, who clung to a tradition of oral and written Torah.  Pharisees, whose designation was derived from a Hebrew word meaning separate or set apart, believed that God had supplied them with both the written record, the Torah, and the wisdom to expound upon it in an “oral” Torah, as provided by the accomplished rabbis.  By the second century A.D., the oral Torah had become the foundation for the Talmud, the codified commentary amounting to an expansion of the Mosaic Law.  The existing branches of rabbinical Judaism today can trace their ancestry back to the Pharisees of the second temple period.  

While these three lines of Judaism may seem to be essentially denominational divisions, they apparently functioned largely as political parties, struggling for civil control over the Jewish nation.  Unlike today’s splintered denominational Christianity, the various brands of ancient Judaism all worshipped in the same Temple.  Some writers have observed that the masses of the Jewish people were probably non-sectarian.

In the New Testament, especially in the gospels, the Pharisees were both the instigators of unrest toward Jesus and the adherents to his new movement, and the objects of Jesus’ most pointed rebukes.  The Pharisees were not only people of the Law, but also people of the rules, regulations, and interpretations that were added by the rabbis on top of the Law.

If we could reconstruct how Pharisaism began, it very likely started with a noble ideal.  If human nature holds true, it is probable that the founders of Pharisaism just wanted to get things right.  Getting things right likely meant exploring every possible angle from which a law could be approached, then adding a layer of interpretation on top of that law.  In seeking not to go beyond the Law, they wound up adding more on top of the existing directives.  However, adding more law is just a way of going beyond in a different direction.

Isn’t that the same sort of thing we see today among many very religious people?  They earnestly want to get things right.  They look for the rules and laws hidden among little comments and biblical histories, and interpolate, infer, and interject interpretations of events to comply with a perceived underlying command that must have necessitated the specific action, comment or statement.  They infer a rationale to explain what they see, and that inference becomes the standard by which they live, and measure all others. 

The desire to get things right, to seek approval of our parents, our teachers, and especially our God is a noble and deeply ingrained drive within us.  In seeking approval of those we love, respect and honor, it is logical to conclude that an absence of any evidence of the condemnation of a specific action affirms the approval of that action.  This is used commonly in the establishing of authority for specific religious practices (e.g., partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the First Day of the Week). 

However, in the absence of specific instruction, command or prohibition, it is not logical to assume that the approval of one expression must necessarily negate all others.

In fact, the adoption of a rigidly specific formula for a practice may lead to a loss of connection with the meaning of the practice itself.  Consider the memorial Jesus instituted on the night that he was betrayed to his enemies.  In the Stone Campbell Movement and numerous others such as the Lutheran tradition, the Lord’s Supper is observed weekly.  The Roman Catholic tradition offers daily masses, including and encouraging the observance of communion.  Greek Orthodox believers partake of the communion at least two or three times a year, but would benefit from greater frequency, according to one Orthodox leader.  Eastern Orthodoxy offers communion weekly and on special feast days, and even daily, although the latter occurs mostly in monasteries.  Southern Baptists vary in their observance with some congregations partaking weekly, others monthly, and still others quarterly.  Apparently, the frequency of observance is also variable among branches of the Methodist denomination, however there has recently been an encouragement to weekly observance, in addition to recognized holy days. I have heard that some of the faith traditions that partake with lower frequency suggest that greater frequency may reduce or cheapen the experience. It is interesting to note that in some traditions such as Russian Orthodoxy, partaking of the communion requires fasting, meditation and confession as preparation.

While a comparative study of the communion is not the main focus of this discussion, I was interested to see how different groups approached the subject in order to pose a question:  Is the less frequent observance by a genuinely pious Russian Orthodox believer of less value than the regular observance by a casual adherent to the Stone Campbell tradition?  It would seem that one who consciously and conscientiously prepared himself spiritually to engage in the experience would do so to greater effect and benefit than one who may have timed his arrival at the church of Christ service to coincide with the passing of the bread and cup, apparently considering the physical act of consuming a crumb of matzo and a sip of Welch’s finest Concord grape juice of greater significance than the self-examination and grateful reflection encouraged by Paul in I Corinthians 11.  Obviously some would find fault in both.  But there are those who would praise the weekly, yet half-hearted observance, even though it was not in any way of genuine spiritual benefit to the “participant.” “Faithfulness” is too often defined as the visible participation in ritual, not the deeper exercise of the spiritual.  What so many people do is simply go through the motions, check off the boxes for the “five acts of worship” and leave with full (self-) assurance of having done their religious duty for the week.

“Tick boxes” and visible expressions were hallmarks of the Pharisee.   Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ comparative parable in Luke 18.

“9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A great danger of Pharisaism, then, whether ancient or modern, is in the sense of superiority that it engenders.  The cure for that particular malady is in what Jesus emphasized: humility.  James echoed that idea where he said, in chapter 4.6 of his general epistle,  “…but he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Then, he reiterates the need for humility in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

In a very real sense, the religious practices and observances that constitute our worship are not for God’s benefit.  Does Jesus gain physical or spiritual benefit from our adoration and praise?  Remember what he said regarding the Sabbath?    Did pious observance of every Sabbath law make God stronger or give him more glory?  “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27b)  The Sabbath rest was for man’s benefit.  Worship is much the same: we draw closer to God as we commune with each other and edify each other in faith.  Worship should focus our hearts and minds on God to our mutual benefit as worshippers, not just require us to dwell on the script as mindless drones. 

When the practice of religion becomes more steeped in rules and law-keeping than with the internalized experience and actualization of practical principles—principles and precepts designed to make us better people in order to make a better world—its value is lost.  When we are more concerned with form than function, we have lost our way.  The method then becomes the message, and the focus turns from genuinely honoring God with our very lives to congratulating ourselves for dotting all of the i’s and crossing all of the t’s just so.

When we can fall down before God with genuine thanksgiving and truly ask for his continued mercy, love and grace more deeply and sincerely than we commend our worship process to him, perhaps we will begin to know the blessing Jesus pronounced on the penitent tax collector.  Perhaps we can begin to crack the shell of Pharisaism, and move toward experiencing the joy of God in worship and not just the dread of making a mistake in its performance. 

The Sabbath was made for man.  Use it well.     


2 Responses to Pharisees and Faithfulness

  1. Doris Lee says:

    In paragraph 1….can’t see you as “crusty”.
    In paragraph 7….. Sounds like our government, taking a perfectly good constitution and adding so much text to it that pretty much cancels out the original intent.
    I agree, there seem to be a lot of churches filled with the “for show” folks but in trying not to judge I agree with something I heard from someone that I believe is a true Christian. He said “No one will be in heaven who shouldn’t be.” True that! I enjoy your blogs. They make me think!

    • Darrell Ray says:

      Thanks, Doris. They make me think, too. This is a place where I can try to sort out what I think about many topics. If I can spark some thinking in an interested reader, all the better. I agree, judging should not be our main focus. I hope these comments didn’t come off that way. My intention was to try and understand where a Pharisaic mindset may have originated and point out potential dangers. I believe these folks do act with good intentions. But the severe restrictions they bind on all and the condemnation many of them pronounce on those with whom they disagree are hurtful things that turn the experience of faith into something of a prison. I believe God wants better for us than that.

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