Christianity’s Pharisee Problem September 10, 2012 | 09:34 pm

Fellow Christians, we need to talk. We have a Pharisee problem, and we need to do something about it.

The problem starts in the gospels. The driving plot within the gospels—becoming more prominent as you approach the passion—is Jesus’s conflict with the religious authorities of the day. This, combined with Paul’s efforts to make sense of his people’s rejection of Jesus, results in a popular idea that Jesus was somehow against “the Jews”. There was a mass of people—”the Jews”—for whom Jesus’s message of love was incomprehensible. This mass of people were represented by the Pharisees and the Scribes, who confronted Jesus with legalisms and tricky intellectual puzzles and traps.

This way of thinking is only reinforced by the popular division of the Old Testament and the New Testament into two stories about two separate Gods. There’s the Old Testament God who is wrathful and evil and metes out merciless justice. Then there’s the New Testament God who is mercy and sparkles and lights and loves you just the way you are. There are three problems with this idea.

  1. This statement immediately implies that contemporary Judaism worships a wrathful and evil God who metes out merciless justice. Somehow, thousands of years of Judaism hasn’t ever recognized their God that way, so you’re forced to argue that contemporary and historical Judaism either A) does not know, or B) does not take seriously, their own scriptures and their own God. These are both blatantly anti-semitic claims (not to mention obviously false), and I seriously doubt most people making the Old Testament/New Testament division would care to make either of them.
  2. The New Testament God, including Jesus, has just as strong a concept of justice and is just as damning to the unjust. Jesus rejects and condemns people throughout the gospels—select targets include those who neglect the suffering, those who are evil, those who reject or ignore his message, and those who claim to follow him in word but fail to live into it in deed. Revelation is equally as unhappy with the unfaithful. And of course you see it in Paul and the other epistles.
  3. Jesus and the texts we have closest to Jesus’ own time all affirm the continuity between the Children of Israel and the followers of Jesus. If you think there is a new God in the New Testament versus the Old Testament, you are at odds with Jesus and the New Testament itself.

Beyond these issues, there’s a problem with this conception of “the Jews” because throughout all four gospels, it’s not the crowds who fail to understand and accept Jesus’s message: it’s the disciples. The crowds flock to Jesus and lay down palm leaves and cry “Hosannah!” The people that Jesus calls the most faithful are not the disciples, but the people he stumbles across along the way: the centurion, the woman at the well, the lepers who call him “King”, the bleeding woman, the woman he calls a dog. These people approach Jesus with faith and with a hope of transformation. It’s the disciples that spend all their time trying to figure Jesus out and try to get Jesus to explain himself, and thereby miss the point entirely.

The biggest issue, however, is that “the Jews” that we are reading out of scripture don’t exist. Although it is popular and common (and even arguably useful) for Christian theologians to talk about “the culture” Jesus was speaking to, the reality is that there was no homogenous mass of people that Jesus preached to. There was no “the culture”. Jesus served people, and those people were each individuals with complex histories and motivations and understandings. The more we learn about the time of Jesus, the more diversity we find, and we have even found quite a few critiques and teachings from other contemporary Judeans that sound a lot like Jesus. Thanks to our historical research, we now know that even the Scribes and the Pharisees as portrayed in the scriptures are satires and convenient fictions.

In fact, if you want to find Pharisees and Scribes and hard-hearted nationalists who reject Jesus’s message, you’re better off looking away from the 1st century Middle East and towards 21st century American Christianity.

You want Pharisees? Ask Hugh Hollowell, the Mennonite minister who runs Love Wins Ministries and serves those on the fringes of Raleigh’s social structures. Ask him about those who need to know his doctrine of the resurrection to decide if he’s a Christian. He is guiding a community that is literally feeding the hungry, befriending the lonely, and caring for the neglected sick. He does this all while proclaiming himself proudly as a follower of Christ, but people still need to know how his theology accounts for this or that passage of the Bible to know if he’s a Christian. If his theology is wrong on that point or on any other myriad number of points, then their church couldn’t possibly support him. Those are Pharisees. Every damning word Jesus said about the Pharisees and every derogatory portrayal of the Pharisees in the scriptures apply directly to them.

You want Scribes? Look to divinity schools and seminaries, where master’s students debate denominational affiliations and solve all the world’s problems over lunch tables, and where famous tenured theologians write about vulnerability and taking up the cross. I know we are the Scribes, because I was one. We aid and abet the Pharisees in their task, all the while thinking we have been gifted special and secret knowledge of God, sanctified by study and therefore able to judge our brothers and sisters.

You want hard-hearted nationalists who reject Jesus’s message? Look to every member of the Christian church who rejects Jesus’s calling in order to retain their American exceptionalism, their proud militarism, or their comfortable lifestyle. Any self-righteous indignation here should be checked, though, because that mass of people certainly includes your present author and almost certainly the reader.

Fellow Christians, we are the Pharisee problem. When John the Baptist is confronted with those who sought him out for ritual cleansing, he calls them a “brood of vipers”. He calls us a brood of vipers, because we follow any popular movement and seek out any charismatic figure who might have a quick fix for our problems. When Jesus talks about those who reject him, those who are blind, those who do not have eyes to see or ears to hear, those who have fail to have faith, then he is talking to us. He isn’t talking to some other group separated from us by time, space, or tradition. He is talking about us.

As far as I can tell, the only way to solve this Pharisee problem is for us—Christians—to change our whole way of following Jesus. And this means that we must first and foremost love people. Don’t try to love people. Don’t strive to love people. Don’t pray that some day you might be gifted with the grace enabling you to love people. Love people. Loving people may mean that things will suck sometimes. However, the few times that I have truly felt love for God, it was because I was loving people. And those people in my life who most resemble Christ are those who love others deeply and are compelled by that love. These people also have another strange commonality: they don’t have much time for abstract theology, and absolutely no time for systematic theology and creedal litmus tests. As far as I can tell, if we want to be more like Christ, then we should follow their lead, let that stuff slide, and focus our energies on more important things.