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

Standard

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.

Do People Get What They Deserve?

Standard

In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.