We, the Pharisees

I was asked to read and reflect on a portion of Matt Woodley’s new mediation book, “The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us” by InterVarsity Press. I’m always wary of such requests, partly because of my more heterodox approach to scripture. But this latest addition to IVP’s Resonate Series left me with some meat to chew on, as well as a challenge.

I felt pretty good after getting my assignment of reflecting on the meditation for Matthew chapter 23, both because that’s when Jesus unloads on the Pharisees and rips them a new one, but also because this section in Woodley’s book is titled “Christians Behaving Badly.”

If ever there was a meditation title written after my own heart, that’s it, ain’t it?

The author begins by talking about one of his friends, who we calls his “Favorite Atheist.” Being the friend’s “Favorite Christian,” they consult each other regularly on the goings-on along the other side of the theological fence. This particular day, Woodley asks his friend why he became an atheist, to which his friend responds with a sobering story about an African-American family being turned away at the doors of his then “whites only” church.

It’s easy enough for all of us to sit back now and cluck in contempt, but this plays in precisely to Woodley’s point. He explains that this was a pre-civil-rights experience, and though we can all see the wrong in this now, in retrospect, we’re all hypocrites in our own way.

Who among us, religious leaders especially, hasn’t marginalized someone in the name of our faith? For some it may be women or members of the LGBT community; for others it may be fundamentalists of any stripe, liberals, conservatives, people with special needs, or even just that woman who you pretend to tolerate, but who secretly annoys the crap out of you every Sunday.

Similarly, it’s easy – and actually, kind of fun – to sit back and cheer Jesus on while he tears into “those Pharisees.” But in reality, they and we are not so different. There’s something very satisfying about watching Jesus put these religious wannabes in their place, so long as we’re sitting in the stands observing. But if the spotlight is turned on us, well, that’s a little bit uncomfortable.

Though I don’t agree with all of Woodley’s theological and scriptural conclusions, I do commend his almost Luke-like ability to turn this text on its ear, changing the perspective from which we view things. We are the Pharisees, and when we look at it this way, it’s easier to understand Woodley’s conclusion that Jesus might have had more in common with his atheist friend – embarrassment, frustration and all – than he would with those of us trying to “play Christian.”

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly can relate to Woodley as well. I, too, have a very good atheist friend. Our theological discussions are much deeper than those conversations with my “Christian” colleagues. He has had a profound impact on my theology by challenging why I believe as I do. Over the last 5-years I’ve moved from an evangelical position within Christendom to what I can best describe as a universalist who met the Creator of all life through studying Jesus.  I now think what the church would have us believe about Jesus and his life is mostly a bunch of fabrication.

    Anyway, I stumbled upon your writing a few months ago – good stuff.


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