Part 8-Countering the Right’s Pharisaical Approach to Piety

The tendency of many leaders of the religious right and Republicans to focus on purity and on following the letter of the law (while ignoring its spirit) is not a problem unique to American politics.  As Jesus said to the religious and political leaders of Israel: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices…but you neglect the more important matters of the Law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness…You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. On the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:23-28–this theme is repeated with vivid imagery and different applications throughout the entire 23rd chapter).

The Apostle Paul’s sarcastic comments to the Corinthians in his first letter to them, especially verses 10-11, could very easily have been written for many of the powerful and wealthy leaders of the religious right and Republican Party who so confidently declare that they know God’s will for the country and He is on their side: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena…We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).

“But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. Jesus’ brother makes it quite clear that more is expected of Christians than simply believing in God/Christ. Salvation is through faith, but true faith will transform a person and will shine through in a believer’s actions. And the idea–repeated by the prophets, Christ, and then throughout the epistles–that more is required of us than simple belief or a statement of faith is put particularly well at the very end of this passage: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and they shudder!” (James 2:18-19).

Jesus said something quite similar in the Sermon on the Mount. Shortly after commanding his followers not to store up treasures in earthy places, Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in Heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and drive out demons, and perform many miracles in your name?’ And I will say to them, ‘I never knew you! Get away from me you evildoers.” And what was the only time Jesus described the criteria he’s use to judge the world? Matthew 25:31-46: “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me…then they will go away to punishment but the righteous to ever-lasting life.”

And then there is Amos quoting God’s disdain for the pious who claim to worship God and follow his laws but do nothing to correct unjust systems and social wrongs: “I hate and I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your solemn assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

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