Woe to Us Pharisees!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 — Week of Proper 25, Year 2

Paul Shinji Sasaki and Philip Lindel Tsen,

Bishop of Mid-Japan, and of Tokyo, 1946; Bishop of Honan, China, 1954

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 991)

Psalms 119:49-72 (morning) 49, [53] (evening)

Ecclesiasticus 28:14-26 (found in the Apocrypha; also called Sirach)

Revelation 12:1-6

Luke 11:37-52

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42)

Because the Pharisees became the visible opponent of the early Church, we have inherited a lot of words against them in our New Testament. We seem to think of them as those “others.” We think of them as different from the Christians, hostile toward us. We may even think of them as professional hypocrites, since that’s the description that accompanies so many New Testament references.

But many of those who were attracted to Jesus and became his followers were Pharisees, such as Paul, the singularly most important figure of the early church.

In so many ways, the Pharisees are the kind of people that serious Christians strive to be.

First, the Pharisees took the practice of their faith seriously. They sought to put into practice everything that had been revealed in scripture. They sought to observe the Biblical law in its entirety. They were serious about obeying God and living religiously observant lives.

Second, the Pharisees had a teaching mission to make the practice of the faith accessible to all people. Many peasants believed that it was impossible for them to follow the Torah because of their poverty, they lived in close proximity to defiling and unclean things. The Pharisees inspired and taught peasants to observe the law despite their environment, and showed them ways to be faithful in contexts where they believed themselves to be outside the circle of blessing.

These are good things — being faithful to God’s laws and helping others live more faithfully. How many exemplary Christians strive to live just so. We all know conscientious Christians who live lives of faithful observance; we all know people who try to help others live according to the wisdom and teaching of our faith.

But Jesus has some major issues with the Pharisees, including Christian Pharisees of our own day. It doesn’t matter how disciplined, pious and observant you may be or how conscientiously you may teach others in the way, if you practice your faith “and neglect justice and the love of God,” you have missed the mark.

It’s important to unpack that word “justice.” Justice is the social form of love. In the Bible, justice most often means “economic justice” and “political justice.” Some theologies tend to speak of God’s justice as God’s punishment of our sins, and it’s opposite as God’s mercy. More often, the opposite of God’s justice is human injustice.

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God — how earth would be if God reigned. God’s reign of justice is contrasted with the realities of human systems of political oppression favoring the wealthy and powerful. God’s reign of justice is contrasted with economic exploitation that concentrates wealth among the few and abides poverty, subsistence living, malnourishment, disease and vulnerability.

Woe to you Pharisees! For you neglect justice and the love of God!

A religious practice that emphasizes good behavior and morality, faithfulness in prayer, tithing and other religious practices, and outward witness to God’s word is not enough. We are Pharisees if we participate in systems that allow the wealthy and powerful to concentrate wealth and power; systems that allow poverty and suffering; systems that let children go hungry without feeding them; systems that do not include universal access to medical care. Unless good Christians are actively working to promote justice — the love of God in its social form — we have cleaned the outside of the cup, but inside are full of greed and wickedness; we are “like unmarked graves.”

Jesus speaks in the tradition of the great prophets who declared God’s word on behalf of equity and economic justice for the poor — Amos, Isaiah, Micah and others. Christians who live lives of exemplary religious observance and who neglect economic and political justice on behalf of the least of these are today’s Pharisees.

One more word, and it’s an important one. Love. It is too easy for serious religious observance to slip into moralism and the practice of rules. It is easy for the observant to judge and to look down on the unobservant — we are doing right and they aren’t. When that happens, love has slipped out the back door. Jesus teaches us that every law — every belief and practice — is subsumed under the rubric of love: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Religious practice and pious observance without the gift of extravagant love toward others and toward self is anemic moralism and ritualism.

Woe to you Pharisees! For you neglect justice and the love of God!

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