The Pharisees of the Gospels are portrayed as being legalistic and focused on outward appearance of righteousness to the exclusion of all else. Many have written about how this may or may not be an accurate reflection of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time and others have defended the Pharisees’ desire for piety out of reverence for God. While these things may be true, I would like to observe the actions and words of the Pharisees as they are portrayed.
The Pharisees had achieved a position of respect and power and did not like anything that challenged that place of power. They were scholars of the law and sought to remain pure and faithful to God by not violating any part of the law. The Pharisees are portrayed as noting their own personal piety and seeking to go above and beyond what they believed God expected. The Pharisee who prayed next to the tax collector in the temple prayed to God with a list of his great accomplishments and then thanked God that he was not like other men, including the one who was praying near him (Luke 18:11). It is the Pharisees who brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery (John 8). It is the Pharisees that questioned Jesus about breaking the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath (Luke 5:17) and gleaning grain from the fields on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-3, Mark 2:22-25, Luke 6:1-3). It is the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Matt 9:11, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30). This last issue is of particular focus. To remain pure or to appear pure, the Pharisees would apparently avoid spending time with those that they considered to be sinful or anyone who would, according to the law, make them ceremonially unclean. To spend time with such people would make them unclean and, therefore, not fit to participate in worship. Because of their attempt to keep the law, they made distinctions between themselves and those that felt did not keep the law as they did. They saw their understanding of God as superior and their attempt live out their understanding as making them superior to others.
Throughout the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, the life, actions, and teachings of Jesus are presented as being the antithesis of the Pharisees. Jesus is presented as valuing relationships over keeping the law. He openly condemned the Pharisees for attempting to appear righteous while not attending to true transformation of their hearts (Matt 23:25-26, Luke 11:39). He condemned their ways in his story of the Good Samaritan when noted that the Priest and the Levite passed by the injured man fearing that they would be made unclean rather than going to check on the man or offering care for him (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus openly talked with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26) and he regularly ate with those who were considered outcasts, sinners, and tax collectors. Eating with someone was more than sharing food or sharing a table. It involved conversation and truly getting to know someone. It was a sharing of lives and not just food. When Jesus encountered others, he did not make distinctions among people and did not use the earthly labels that others used to divide themselves. Jesus healed, talked with, ate with, taught, and loved people of all nationalities, genders, and backgrounds.
In later years, Paul wrote that in Christ all earthly titles are meaningless. When we follow Christ, when we are “In Christ”, we are to love one another and we are no longer defined by or define others by the earthly categories that divide people. Paul names male and female, Jew and Greek, Slave and Free (Gal. 3:28). In today’s world it might mean that we add the categories of Christian and Non-Christian, Rich and Poor, Democrat or Republican, and Gay and Straight. In fact, what we read of love says that if we do all the right things, but do not have love, then our actions are worthless (I Cor. 13:1-3). Jealousies, envy, fighting, all disappear when we truly love (I Cor. 13: 4-7). When we look at another and see them as “Them” or “Those People”, even if are feelings are benevolent, we are still making distinctions among ourselves. True love seeks to find the “person” within. True love seeks whatever is true within that person. True love seeks whatever is admirable in that person.
This is why I am deeply concerned about the efforts these days to codify the “freedom” of business owners to deny services to another on the grounds of religious beliefs (Arizona, Tennessee, Kansas). Many of those who are seeking to have the “right” to refuse another person service because the other person does not fit with their understanding of God or God’s teachings identify themselves as Christians. To say, “If I feel your life or behavior violates my understanding of God’s rules and laws and I do not want to have anything to do with you” is no better than the biblical Pharisees refusing to fellowship with others out of fear of appearing to be sinful or fear of being made unclean by the association. However, Jesus’ example was that we should have intimate fellowship with these very people; that we should make no distinction between people. It is not the example of Jesus to shun others. It is not the example of Jesus to say if you do not obey the law, I will not have communion with you. That mentality is one that is built on our own attempts to appear righteous and that type of mentality always results in us making distinctions between our attempts and what we might perceive as the lack of attempts in others. The difficulty is that once we make a distinction between ourselves and others, we have left the example of Jesus. If we truly believe that “All have sinned” (Rom 3:23), then none of us has any grounds to make distinction between ourselves and others.
I realize the irony of writing this piece. In writing this I am making a distinction between those that want to ostracize others and those that desire to be inclusive. However, I will readily admit that I suck at following the example of Jesus. In my heart I truly to desire to see others beyond the earthly labels. In my counseling practice, I seek to know the person behind the traditional diagnoses. When I am able to connect with that person, then I lose the distance that is created by the label. The people are no longer “drug addicts”, “homeless”, “mentally ill”, “adulterers”, rich, poor, gay, straight, single, married or anything else. When I am actually able to know the person, I see in them the person who yearns for wholeness. I see the person who desires meaning. I connect with the person who fears being alone. I can connect with those things. I can also identify the places that my clients have experienced love or have shown true self-less love. I can see the places that they fight for justice. I see in them creativity and beauty. All these things I understand as a bit of their creator in them and I seek to help those parts grow. There are times when my work feels very holy. However, I leave my office and I curse the jackass who is tailgating me down the interstate. I feel angry when I see people intentionally hurt one another or attempt exercise control over others. I regularly feel impatient. I get my feelings hurt and respond with anger. I am a long way from achieving the ideal of being Christ-like. I am grateful for the grace of God that allows me to get up each morning and try again. When I am aware of my own struggles and the ways I hurt others, I can hardly stand in judgment of another person who is also on a spiritual journey. This, I guess, is why I feel frustration when I see people who claim to follow the same Christ I do, seeking to condemn others, alienate others, or hurt others with whom they do not agree for some reason. Let us seek something better. Let us show our distinction as the Disciples of Christ by our love (John 13:35). For when we love one another, only then do we truly fulfill the law of God (Rom.13:8).