Saturday, June 21, 2008

Phiddling With Pharisees

I’ve been preaching on Pharisees lately. Interesting bunch of people. Did you know they had a long, distinguished history as ardent nationalists, educators, defenders of Israel, and the moral conscience of the Jews? The Bible doesn’t pretend to give us a broad, balanced view of Pharisees. It’s almost as if the Bible writers wanted us to have to dig a bit if we want to understand more about these people.

Coming into existence sometime during the Babylonian captivity, Pharisees refused to allow the same fate as happened to the northern tribes when they were taken into Assyrian captivity. Basically, they disappeared, ceasing to be Jewish by melting into the surrounding people through intermarriage, adoption of their religions, and ultimately, there was no distinguishing features or identity by which to call them Jews. Pharisees were determined this wouldn’t happen to them.

They probably helped develop the synagogue system, which was really an educational effort to keep the Jewish people informed and aware of God’s law. They were determined students who wanted to know and to keep the law as well as possible. There is a lot to admire about Pharisees, for they stood up and led when it would have been easy to stay quiet and out of the way. If you look at the whole of their history, you might conclude that there are more favorable things than otherwise.

However, as is true with lots of people, their strengths created problems. This is one of those things that has intrigued me ever since I took some certification courses years ago in motivational and behavioral concepts. Usually we think of weaknesses as trouble spots. In other words, we expect an area of weakness to give us trouble along the way. But the truth is that our strengths can also cause problems. These are sometimes the more difficult kind of problem. We don’t see them coming, for one thing, and when they happen, we remain blind to the problem because we assume that a strength is just that – strength and not a source of problem.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Let’s suppose a man is blessed with the ability to make quick decisions. I don’t mean that he’s careless or just fires off decisions without thinking. I mean he’s blessed with the ability to quickly assess information, options, possible results, etc., and to come to speedy decisions. That is a positive ability in many areas of life including business, the military, and more. However, put that man into a situation that requires a deeper level of consideration, or that requires consultation with several others whose part in a project is greatly affected by what he decides, and you might discover that Mr. Quick Decider is now beset with problems. Or take a man who makes slower decisions, because he routinely needs to think through all possibilities. This can also be a strength, especially if he works in an area that requires examination of loads of information. Now, put this guy into a situation where quick decisions are a must. His strength becomes a source of problems. Most likely, neither man will easily see that his strength is the problem.

Pharisees fell into this trap. Their eagerness to know the law and to obey the law became an obsession for them. The very goal they set out to accomplish, however, became for them a source of trouble. They got into the “fence building” business, thinking that if they just moved the point of disobedience back a little bit, then they would insure against a violation of God’s word and will. The problem? Their fence ultimately became the law itself. One example will suffice. God had commanded that they remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. They were to work six days and rest on the seventh. God did not define “work.” Pharisees did. They reasoned something like this: God said don’t work; harvesting grain is work; therefore you can’t pick a single head of grain on the Sabbath lest you violate God’s will. Well, to be honest, that would have done it. Regardless of the definition of “work,” if you didn’t pick even one head of grain, you certainly would never violate the law by harvesting on the Sabbath. So, when the disciples of Jesus went through a field on a Sabbath day, picked heads of grain to eat because they were hungry, the Pharisees charged them with breaking God’s law (cf. Mt. 12:1-2).

This is important. The Pharisees did not say to Jesus, “Your disciples don’t practice the same traditions as we do. We don't understand why.” They said, “Your disciples do what is not lawful.” That is a huge statement, for the Pharisees could see no difference or distinction between the law and their traditional understanding. It had become one and the same.

You have to wonder if we do the same kind of things. How many of the “major” disagreements among Christians are really over reasoned conclusions and traditional practices (all honestly based on our understanding of scripture) but not the plainly expressed word of God? This is an important subject for us to consider. I doubt the Pharisees thought they could possibly be wrong on the issue of working on the Sabbath, but Jesus certainly thought so. I doubt if we think we could possibly be wrong on a host of subjects, but it is very possible that Jesus might think we are. By the way, it’s not so much that Jesus faulted the Pharisees for practicing these things themselves, but he did have a problem with them insisting that everybody else follow suit.

I went back and re-read some of Thomas Campbell’s, Declaration and Address recently. It’s a fascinating document. Proposition 6 sets forth the idea that Christians ought not insist that their inferences be bound on others. I wonder if we could have avoided a lot of divisions and disunity if we had followed that idea? Campbell didn’t mean we shouldn’t draw conclusions or make inferences. He just had a problem with you coming with your list and demanding that I agree with you or be out of fellowship, or me doing the same to you.

This is a huge area of concern. The proper place and realm of personal opinion is extremely difficult to define and deal with. Pharisees didn’t do a very good job. I suspect we don’t either. Unity, at least the way I’ve heard it promoted, seems to depend on you and me seeing things alike. Unity, at least the way I’m beginning to see it in scripture, is based more on mutual love and acceptance, even in the face of disagreements. That doesn’t mean some disagreements are not so huge they can be overlooked. It does mean that maybe we’ve put too much emphasis on disagreements that occur because of some humanly deduced issue, not because it was truly an expressed statement of God. In fact, of the divisions, fallings-out, and rejection of brothers and sisters I’m aware of, I’d say the vast majority were not over things God really, actually said. They are Pharisaical arguments over deduced conclusions and traditional practices.

I would love to not be like a Pharisees, but that’s not really true either. I want to be like a Pharisee but avoid the extremes that caused them to conflict with Jesus. Jesus never faulted them on their desire to know or obey God. He did fault them for turning their own words into God’s words, and their own rules into God’s rules. And there, we are all too much like them.