One of the most important and often neglected threads of the gospel stories of Jesus is the ongoing debate that he has with the Pharisees about the nature of holiness. It’s very important for us to recognize that the Pharisees represent the very best that we could do without Jesus. They were genuinely trying with all their hearts to follow God, but God wanted better for his people which is why Jesus had to come. The forty days of Lent before Easter are a time for Christians to grapple with the nature of holiness together. So for this year’s Lent at Burke United Methodist Church’s Sunday evening Lifesign service, we will be looking at a series of stories that illuminate the distinction between Jesus’ holiness and that of the Pharisees. If you’re not able to make it in person, please subscribe to the podcast.
1) March 9th: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:9-13)
One of Jesus’ first run-ins with the Pharisees happens when he goes to a party at the home of Matthew the tax collector. It’s easy for us to gloss over how scandalous Jesus was acting by going to this party. It would be like if a famous pastor like Rick Warren were caught by the paparazzi in the booth of a raunchy club with Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton. And yet Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.'”
2) March 16th: “The Sabbath was made for humanity” (Mark 2:23-38)
The Sabbath was the holiest day of the week, a day to focus on God alone. Jewish people were not supposed to do any work. They were supposed to plan ahead and pack their lunches. Jesus’ disciples didn’t plan ahead; they got hungry; so they started harvesting grain from somebody else’s field on the Sabbath, not only violating the Sabbath but stealing crops on top of that. When the Pharisees called Jesus out for this, he said something astonishing: “The Sabbath is made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” No, the Sabbath was made to honor God, wasn’t it?
Simon the Pharisee was thrilled to have the famous new rabbi Jesus as the guest of honor at his home for a banquet. But then a sinful woman from the village snuck into the room and started giving Jesus’ feet a very inappropriate massage in front of all the guests. It was the most embarrassed Simon had ever been. How could this rabbi allow such a violation of public decency to occur? And then to add insult to injury, Jesus publicly humiliates Simon for supposedly being a worse host than this woman who had trespassed into Simon’s home!
4) March 30th: “Nothing outside a man can make him unclean” (Mark 7:1-23)
The first century Jewish conception of holiness was built on the foundation of God’s command in Leviticus 10:10: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean.” God said that certain things were clean and other things were unclean. It didn’t matter why. God said it, and God’s people were to obey him. And then this upstart rabbi Jesus has the audacity to say that “cleanliness” was really a question of what comes out of your heart, not what goes into your body. That’s not what it says in the Torah, rabbi!
5) April 6th: “Give to Caesar what it is Caesar’s” (Luke 20:20-26)
Taxes have always been hated ever since they were invented. What was even more egregious about taxes in the Roman Empire was that they paid for things that were completely immoral according to the Jewish faith. So the Pharisees asked Jesus what they should do about taxes. And Jesus said to give to Caesar the coins that have his image and give to God whatever is made in God’s image. It’s a way of looking at the world that is quite radical if we allow it to be.
6) April 13th: the Seven Woes of the Pharisees (Matthew 23)
There is no chapter in scripture where Jesus is meaner than Matthew 23. He goes off on the Pharisees, listing seven woes that are biting critiques of their behavior. It should make us shudder to read Jesus’ words because the Pharisees were doing a much better job of living holy lives than any of us could do on our own.