Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Anyone familiar with the Christian tradition knows that the scribes and Pharisees didn’t care for Jesus. From their point of view, he was an impertinent and unruly interloper whose words and conduct were blasphemous and subversive. From his point of view, they were … well, they were phony.
Roman-occupied Palestine, in the first century of the common era, did not have a First Amendment, so there was no freedom of speech or even freedom of religion, at least not in the form of disestablishment of religion as we know it today. If one was Jewish, one had to do certain things and do them in particular ways; there was no room to allow one the choice of altering how things were done according to the dictates of conscience or personal liberty.
Likewise, speaking up and speaking out against the authorities—civil and religious—could get one in a lot of trouble, so much so that it was much better to muzzle your mouth, stew in your juices, and keep a low profile—or join up with the revolutionaries advocating violent overthrow. Doing it your way could be nettlesome to the religious elite who kept the gates and brokered the law and preserved the socioeconomic and religious establishment.
So it’s not surprising that when Jesus calls out the scribes and Pharisees, they are not too pleased. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” he says with ire, “for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others” (Mt 23:23 NRSV. See also Lk 11:42).
Clearly, Jesus judged this crowd as deficient in executing the “weightier matters” of the law. Perhaps, in his mind, they not only did not do what they were supposed to do as the ruling elite, but they did do things they weren’t supposed to do. So maybe we could say they were engaging in acts of omission and acts of commission.
On the other hand, from the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, I’m quite confident that they saw themselves as doing all that was required by the law and then some. In their mind, they were not neglecting anything, and no doubt they saw themselves as upholding and exacting justice and mercy and faith. For them, the law and the traditions were clear, authoritative and indisputable.
Between Jesus and these religious leaders, there was a profound disconnect, a blatant contradiction. These two squared off against one another, and the point of view of each side regarding the other couldn’t be more different. The scribes and Pharisees were keeping the law and doing justice, dispensing mercy and pronouncing judgment as required; Jesus, on the other hand, judged them to be dissemblers because they were not doing (i.e., producing, providing, performing, enacting, expressing) justice, mercy, faith and—according to Luke’s version—the love of God.
Now what is involved in this doing of justice and mercy, this faith and love, that Jesus speaks of as the “weightier matters” that have gone unpracticed? Perhaps more importantly, how is it that Jesus’ charge of hypocrisy so angers the scribes and Pharisees that they conspire to catch him in some ungodly act or irreverent speech that would confirm his blasphemy, justify the punishment of death, and acquit them of his reckless judgment against them?
Reflections on this passage have prompted me to wonder: If the scribes and Pharisees thought themselves to be loving and faithful and just and merciful when in fact they weren’t, according to Jesus, is it possible that there are followers of Jesus today who think of themselves in ways similar to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, but whose beliefs and conduct merit the same woe of judgment Jesus gave to his first-century opponents?
Just as the scribes and Pharisees insisted on obedience to the law and adherence to the rules and regulations of the tradition that governed areas like tithing, foods, sexuality, property, marriage and temple ritual, and thus prescribed and enforced a socioeconomic and religious lifestyle that actually favored their position and preserved their own power while abridging the need for justice and mercy sought by others, is it conceivable that there are followers of Jesus today whose religious sensibilities, cultural locations, and socioeconomic resources are so inextricably tied to advantages of their power and privilege that they take their values and priorities to be the presumed norm and equivalent to the way things ought to be? Is there a charge of hypocrisy that could be leveled here?
It would be indelicate to answer these questions with either an unequivocal yes or no, but I admit they have stirred me to think further about some issues unearthed here, issues related to faith and public life. I don’t think anyone wants to be a Pharisee, and no one likes having their hypocrisy exposed—least of all me! But it might nonetheless be useful—and revealing—to imagine oneself a modern Pharisee of sorts, one to whom a modern Jesus might direct just such a censure of hypocrisy.
One thing is certain about the scribes and the Pharisees: their religion and their faith were very, very important to them. We should not think that because Jesus called them hypocrites they were therefore not serious or committed religionists. Their faith and their way of life—their religion—were totalizing, encompassing every aspect of human socioeconomic and political existence. From birth to death, dawn to dusk, seller to buyer, season to season, year to year, place to place, generation to generation, life was organized around the public rhythms of faithful obedience to the laws of the covenant between the Jews and their God. Nothing, literally nothing, was outside this domain, not even the encroachment on this covenant by the ruling Roman Empire.
Likewise, there are, among us, many for whom their Christian faith is very, very important, so important that they freely acknowledge that their tradition of faith touches every aspect of their life and the choices they make. To them, it is unthinkable that their faith convictions and commitments would not guide them along life’s path, or that there is an area of their life from day to day that is outside of, and untouched by, the pattern of authority established by God, including matters of both personal virtue and public morality.
And yet, for these who confess their faith and its significance, there appears to be remarkably little evidence of doing those things that produce, provide, perform, enact, or express justice and mercy by almost any measure other than one’s own private religious sensibilities. At the same time, if there is one feature characteristic of the variety of Christianities in our context, it is that there is no consensus on what constitutes justice and mercy, or how religion could or should inform an understanding and codification of these virtues in our civil democracy.
It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures do not offer us an unambiguous definition of “justice” and “mercy.” Across the centuries and cultures, from those times to ours, we puzzle our way through in a reading of what the scriptures offer us on the meaning of “faith” and “love.” Biblical scholarship notwithstanding, we have to make it up as we go along; it’s one thing to say “this is what the Bible teaches,” and it’s another thing entirely to say “these are the implications for us today.” These two things are not identical, and empirical, theoretical, and ideological moves are made when pronouncements of their relationship are offered.
So perhaps here lies the cutting edge of Jesus’ censure to the scribes and Pharisees: We ought not to suppose that our notions of justice, mercy, faith and love are identical to those “weightier matters” about which Jesus spoke to his fellow religionists. His poor are not our poor, though the nature of poverty then and its growth now should give us pause. They did “power and privilege” differently in the first century C.E. than we do now, though the similarities are uncanny even when our sophisticated veneers are stripped away. The distance then between the “haves” and the “have-nots” segregated a tiny but commanding elite from the weak and impoverished masses, but we appear to be much more diverse in our growing income inequality. Children in those days were embedded in a larger network of relatives whose responsibility it was to see to their socialization—differentially as male and female, to be sure—but everyone was equipped to discharge their social role and to fit in, while we have difficulty equalizing accessibility to quality education and empowering persons to embrace and express their equality and participate fully in our sociopolitical system.
There are scribes and Pharisees among us. Justice and mercy, faith and love, are at risk. Jesus says “woe!” Scribes and Pharisees say “excuse me!” On which side will you be found? More to come….
Posted by Douglas R. Sharp at 3:23 PM