It is common to rail against the Pharisees in our churches. Pharisees embody everything that goes wrong in the life of a “missional church.” Pharisees gather herds of sacred cows and solemnly lead them to pasture, carefully tend their bruises, and eagerly exalt their status among the other, ordinary and mundane bovine. Pharisees travel far and wide in order to entice the potentially scrupulous to join them, and then take delicious delight in denying them full entrance and frustrating them with endless hoops and hurdles. Pharisees callously fail to see the hurting and if once they should see them mercilessly refuse to reach for them and help them. Pharisees always assume that “it’s their own fault; they made that bed, so let’em sleep in it; to help them will only reinforce their bad behavior and suggest that we are soft on sin, etc. etc.” Pharisees major on minors (like the presence of difficult people and nay-sayers) and minor on majors (like the “mission!”). Pharisees adopt late, if ever. “Pharisees” express in a word why we are not moving forward, why we see so little fruit, and why we let ourselves off the hook in making disciples that make disciples. Whatever we do the Pharisees thwart our best efforts and make it virtually impossible to gain kingdom-traction.
At least we tell ourselves these things.
To be sure, Pharisees figure prominently in the Jesus-story. They do indeed oppose Jesus and draw Jesus’ most sustained and fierce critique. Sometimes Jesus even condemns them. Clearly, they did not understand Jesus and were appalled by Jesus’ way with people and Temple and the traditions of the elders, which were forever held in the highest regard by all the faithful of Israel. Undoubtedly, they just didn’t get it. But …
To be as fair as the likes of us can be, who really did get it? Who, at the end of the day, was not appalled at Jesus’ way, in part if not in whole? Who didn’t play games, at least to some extent, and thus totally missed the point? And, who in demonizing Pharisees doesn’t end up looking a lot like them?
And, as was the case with all others so adept at missing the Jesus-point, how did Jesus respond to them? What was Jesus’ posture toward them—toward even the Pharisees? What was Jesus prepared to do for them, when push came to shove at the end of Passover week?
Of course, we know the answer. And, of course, it shocks and scandalizes our sensitivities to consider that Jesus consistently reached toward Pharisees as relentlessly as toward others. It shocks us to think that when he asked the Father to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing, he was dead- but soon-to-be-live -serious, and not simply demonstrating his willingness to forgive even them! in railing against in order to blame Pharisees, we forget that often Jesus’ most daring demonstrations of mercy and love came in the home of a Pharisee who, although didn’t get the point and may even have refuted the point, nevertheless was witness to the point, part of which was itself Jesus’ reaching out toward them in hopes of getting the point after all. We forget that Jesus’ chief spokesman in time would be a Pharisee, named Saul, and that a number of Pharisees eventually joined “the way.”
Perhaps if we lived more like Jesus, some of the “real” Pharisees among us (in contrast to the imaginary ones we sometimes make up in order to mask or deflect our failures) would become like some of those we read about in the Story. Maybe only a few, granted, but even a few could help change the world.
So, for Lent we might consider giving up Pharisee-bashing. It would be easier on our knuckles and also our souls. It might help us enter into more fully the passion of Jesus, which was directed and spent in the interest and for the love of Pharisees just as much as for other “retches like me.” And, along the way, we might even accomplish something for Jesus’ mission.