Consider the following famous Christian quotes:
“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” – Billy Sunday
“Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.”
– William J. Toms
Have you ever encountered quotes like these and nodded your head in agreement? Then you might have more in common with the Pharisees than you think!
Now hold on there, dear reader! Don’t “x” out on me just yet! I know that referring to most of this reading audience as, essentially, “a bunch of Pharisees” is a risky strategy. But I read an article this week, written by O. Wesley Allen Jr. for the website workingpreacher.org, that really challenges our understanding of these religious leaders who so often found themselves at odds with Jesus throughout the Gospels. Professor Allen helps us understand that the Pharisees might not be so different from you and me after all. He writes:
“(One could say that) Pharisees were the liberal, mainline Protestants of first century Judaism. While other Jewish sects claimed the people needed the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God, the Pharisees democratized religious experience.
Often described by Christian preachers as jot and tittles of rules and regulations of religious observance, the Pharisees offered to people modes and means of devotional practice that could be followed anywhere by anyone without direct oversight or mediation by religious leaders (clergy). This means that we can assume the challenges which the Gospel writers present them as having to Jesus’ actions are sincere concerns about the welfare of the people and the shared ritual practices available to them.”
In this Sunday’s gospel passage (Luke 6:1-11), we will observe Jesus clashing with the Pharisees once again, this time over the observance of the Sabbath. Set aside as a holy day of rest, the Pharisees were deeply concerned with what was permitted on this day, in the interest of living righteously and staying closely connected to God. First, they engage in a minor tussle with him over the activity of plucking grain with his hungry disciples. His parting words to them must have sent a chill up their collective spine: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Surely, they thought, he could not be referring to himself? Consider how this claim of ultimate authority clashes with Pharisees’ noble, even Reformation-like idea of a “democratized religious experience.”
On another sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the temple in the presence of the Pharisees, and in the midst of the congregation there was a man with a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him…ready to make an accusation against him if the situation escalated. Jesus asks them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” And with the simple act of Jesus speaking to him (speaking, of course, was not forbidden on the sabbath), the man’s hand was miraculously restored.
Why were the Pharisees so full of fury after this encounter? Perhaps fury is experienced when a religious system, like the one the Pharisees had so carefully and thoughtfully crafted, begins crumbling down. A “democratized religious experience” like the one they knew faces an insurmountable challenge in Jesus Christ. This radical preacher, whose teaching and healing powers are unmatched, is a very real threat to their life of faith. He claims for himself the authority to forgive sins, sees himself as “above the law” in encounters such as these, and continually surrounds himself with sinners whose disregard for the law is brazen and alarming.
Does the Son of God still threaten our carefully crafted religious beliefs today, with his claims to authority, and his insistence that we live by his forgiveness and grace instead of our merits and accomplishments? What does life look like when we give up the struggle of trying to live by our own righteousness and rest in his graceful lordship instead? These are the questions I am considering as I prepare the sermon for this coming weekend. But I think that life lived in him looks something like this: a blessed rest in the peace of faith, a restoration to abundant life….a sabbath beyond compare.
(Photo courtesy of www.lds.org)