Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.

The Blessings Of Not Being Married As Planned

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This was not the blog I had planned.  I have two finished blogs and had told a friend I may flip a coin to choose between them.  However, I was thrown a major curve ball which has caused me to wish to delay release of those blogs to go with a third option: Write this blog and share it first.

Enjoy…

When life does not go according to plan and you end up single, like me.

My plan was to be married by twenty-one.  I’m the relationship kind of guy.  I wanted to share my life with someone special more than anything else, wanted children, and therefore had planned to be married as soon as possible.  However, my plans to marry that high school crush passed along with my twenties and, despite my heroic efforts, I remain single to this day.

Anyhow, I decided to write this blog so my single (and wanting) friends can have a reason to smile.  I’m single, it was not entirely my choice, it has been extremely painful at times, profound loneliness stinks, and yet God has been faithful.  There have been many moments of deep despair and hopelessness, but I am here to tell you that there’s reason to hope and be happy.

I’ve decided to write about the things I would have missed out on and what I would not be today had I married when I planned.  It is hard to imagine what I would be for certain today had I married young and we have no way to know that counterfactual reality of might have been, yet there are some things that I am fairly certain about.

Six things I would not be had I as a married planned:

I would not be a blogger.  You are reading this blog because I have time to write it as a single person.  Writing is something I do not completely enjoy, but it is something that seems to be a gift I have and I do it mostly as an act of faith.  This blog was started a couple years ago as a response to the questions in my mind about my purpose in life that came after a “no” from a girl who was the embodiment of a the Mennonite ideal for a wife.

I would not own an awesome car.  Earlier this year it was my privilege to buy something most married men can only dream about and that being a brand new Shelby GT350 Mustang.  Sure, we should not live our lives for such material things, but it was nice to see my hard work and diligent saving pay off in a tangible (very thrilling) way.  So, while I would trade this mechanical beast for a wife and family in a heart beat, I still enjoy the memories of many grins and the experience.

I would not know the pain of rejection.  Pain is bad, right?  Well, not entirely actually, pain is temporary and with pain comes empathy and the ability to appreciate pleasure all the more.  Sure, we avoid pain, we probably should avoid unnecessary pain, and yet pain helps me to identify with those who suffer.  More significantly, it has allowed me the privilege of a deeper appreciation and understanding of my Lord and Savior who suffered for our sins.

I would not have the unique perspective that I do.  My experience as a single person with unfulfilled desires and social needs often unmet gives me a special vision for the church.  I say unfulfilled needs thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the idea that people need deeper connection to thrive.  I can recall the many times I felt spiritually deficient, isolate from human touch and longed for a church that was more than superficially concerned.  The fact is, we were made for meaningful human connection and without it we become unhealthy.

I would have missed out on many wonderful friendships.  As part of my dealing with my own disappointment I became more open to being the answer for the needs of other people.  Because of what I had gone through it was my desire to help others in similar circumstances.  I have stepped out in faith and as a result have been very blessed.  The friendships gained would likely be impossible had I been a married man.  Investments made in Christian love for other people always seem to pay back in surprising ways.

I would not have been asked on a date.  There is a first time for everything and I had a first over the weekend.  When I wrote my last blog it was not with a clear personal agenda or self-pity.  There are some unanswered questions right now that keep me from being ready to make a serious romantic commitment.  My blog was to create awareness of an issue that is not being adequately addressed in the conservative Mennonite church that I know.  One thing for certain, I had not planned on being asked out on a coffee date by a very intriguing young woman.

But I do like my unplanned blessings and especially when they come because of faithful actions.

I have much to be thankful for as one blessed more than he deserves.

My next blog will be on the topic of marriage as martyrdom.  But before that I wanted to encourage my single friends to see the bigger perspective.  Those who remain single (because they were rejected by the world’s standard and not for prideful selfish reasons) may obtain the bigger crown because they are most like our Lord and Savior. 

So, to my single friends, remain faithful.  God may have some unplanned surprises in your future of a very pleasant variety.  Trust God, the one who holds the future, and not your own human perspective or a worldly understanding.  Live in true faith today and may God soon grant you the desires of your heart.

Smile too, it’s attractive.