Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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dogemperor [userpic]
"Two ways of being in the world"


This editorial in the Northwest Arkansas Times reminds us about the contrast between Christ's teachings and those of the Pharisees. I thought that it might serve to remind us about the contrast between rigidity and hate, and flexibility and love.

The Christian Gospels show Jesus in a state of regular conflict. The gospelwriters identify the conflicting party as the "scribes and Pharisees." Although their account is probably colored by some early-Church polemic, here’s the picture we have of those who were bothered by Jesus’ message.

The Pharisees saw this as a fallen and profane world. They believed that people are essentially born sinners, and if left to their own, will live lives that are sinful, unclean and often evil. The only hope for us, therefore, is to be guided in the right way, if we will be guided, and forced if necessary. There are laws. There are absolutes. There is right and there is wrong, and we can know the difference with confidence, said the Pharisees. They searched the scriptures and codified right and wrong. Those who followed the laws of scripture were righteous. Those who did not or could not, were sinners.

The Pharisees believed that the most important thing in the world was to be obedient to the laws of God. If one was obedient, then God would bless you. What are the signs of God’s blessing? Prosperity and wealth, health and wellbeing, a large and orderly family, say the Pharisees.

It was believed that if you punished the disobedient appropriately, then the disobedient would become obedient in order to avoid punishment. There were strict punishments for breaking certain laws. Those who could not straighten up and become observant would be shunned and outcast at best, or, in extreme cases, stoned as blasphemers.

Their vision of God was consistent with their vision of righteousness. God was the ultimate judge, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. And for any issues of justice that couldn’t be taken care of in the present, God was keeping score and there would come a day of reckoning. Many looked forward to that day as being the Day of the Coming of the Messiah, when God would reward his chosen people and punish or destroy the others.

On nearly every point, Jesus’ view of God was the mirror opposite of the Pharisees. Jesus reached out to every human being with love, not law. He took all of those laws that the Pharisees had collected and subordinated them to love. "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the law and the prophets." Then he took it a step further with his simple, new commandment, "Love one another."

He had such empathy for those who were sinners, that he made forgiveness rather than judgment the centerpiece of his ethic. "How many times should I forgive?" his perplexed disciples asked him. In colorful language he said, "As much as it takes." He had special empathy for those who were weak, ill, broken, or unclean, the ones the Pharisees shunned. He had compassion for them; he touched them; he healed them. He crossed the boundaries between clean and unclean, reaching out with empathy and care toward foreigners, tax collectors, lepers and women.

He reversed the expectations of the Pharisees. His story about a Good Samaritan helping an injured person was pointedly critical of the priest and scribe who crossed to the other side of the road. He told a story of a rich man who dies and is tormented in Hades and a poor, unclean beggar from his front door who sits in Abraham’s bosom, a shocking reversal of blessing. Every gospel has a story of his generously feeding multitudes, including foreigners.

Jesus defined his mission to bring abundant life to all. All. Not just the righteous. And he celebrated the goodness of all creation, inviting everyone to trust a generous and loving God by becoming generous and loving ourselves. His God was not the angry judge; his God was the intimate, loving parent, whom he addressed with baby talk — Abba.

Jesus’ word was almost diametrically opposite to what the Pharisees believed. And Pharisees didn’t disappear centuries ago. The church has always experienced a tension over whether we will follow the God of Jesus or the God of the Pharisees. Pharisees are still around today, dividing the world into righteous and sinner, us and them, good and evil.

Jesus intends no conflict toward the Pharisees, he only invites them to a more expansive vision of God and humanity. It’s just that God is more loving than they can imagine... just yet. And it’s all right. They are forgiven. We’re all forgiven. Always. There is no point in thinking of the Pharisees as enemies. Besides, Jesus taught us to love our enemies. God is intent on freeing every human being from our bondage, including those of us in bondage to our good intentions.

The Rev. Lowell Grisham is an Episcopal priest in Fayetteville.

We all know who the 'Pharisees' of today are, and it saddens me that if Christ were to return in some other guise, these people would be all over him and condemning him for caring about today's 'unclean' people. Some things never change.