A teacher in a public school was teaching her third grade students about mammals in the sea. She mentioned that the whale is a large animal living in the sea. Even though it is one of the largest sea creatures, it has a very narrow throat, and so it cannot swallow an adult human being.
A girl in the class spoke up, “But it swallowed Jonah!”
“No,” the teacher said, “It just cannot swallow an adult human being. Because, as I said, even though it is a large animal, it has a very narrow throat and so cannot swallow an adult human being.” The girl persisted, “Well, when I go to heaven, I will ask Jonah.” “What if Jonah is not in heaven; what if he is in hell?” the teacher asked. The girl’s response, “Then you ask him!”
Last week, Rodger preached about conflicts within the Body of believers. He discussed how believers, in Jesus’ time and on down through the ages to our time, tried to place limits on those who could be part of Jesus’ church. One example was a dispute between two people in the church and the steps one can go through for reconciliation. It is a long, arduous process that takes time and energy- yes, but it also lessens the opportunity to push away the one who harms us when they need Jesus in their lives too. We are not to judge and set limits on who is and is not going to be with God after this life.
Rodger used an example of conflict within, in his last sermon, by reading the passage about James and John, of Jesus’ 12 disciples fame, asking him for special privilege to sit beside him enthroned in heaven. Of course, that caused quite a stir among the other disciples and Jesus basically rebukes them and explains that he could not grant their desired results. We are not to judge and set limits on who is one of God’s children.
Ultimately that is up to God.
Those were challenges within the church and today I’m preaching about challenges without. The story I told you at the beginning of this message about the 3rd grade teacher, a student and the biblical Jonah you may have laughed at or perhaps chuckled to yourself about. Why would we find that talk of heaven and hell funny? Well, for one thing it’s a silly story and may tickle our funny bone but the other less desirable reason is that you likely placed a value judgment on that teacher as the student did. You may have thought she must have been an atheist or a cynic or perhaps you may have thought she wasn’t a very good Christian.
At times we do need to make value judgments between what we interpret from scripture to be right or wrong, but far too often we may be practicing pharisaism. Pharisaism, named after the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, is the rightness or wrongness of something or someone, or of the usefulness of something or someone, based on a comparison or other relativity according to Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the comparison we often use is of oneself forgetting that we are far from perfect and sin and fall short of the glory of God, as our Scripture explains. The value judgment of the teacher may not be wrong for she may in fact be an atheist, a cynic or, at the very least, not a very good Christian. Yet, as I have alluded to, before we can make a value judgment on another, we must examine how secure our own position is in the faith. It may likely be not as secure as we would like to think. The teacher may have been a very good Christian, simply accepting the scientific evidence of a whale’s narrow throat too.
James and John were chosen by Jesus as disciples and he gave them the great honor of accompanying him up on that mountaintop with Peter as Jesus’ divinity was revealed. Why shouldn’t they sincerely ask if they could sit on his right or left in the afterlife? Well, because they weren’t any more perfect or better than any other human being. They may have accomplished better things in faith but they were far from perfect and not of more worth than other human beings. We too can be very sincere too but sincerely wrong just as easily. The best example for us of pharisaism is the religious authorities of Jesus’ time. We will find out that they were wonderful at keeping the letter of the Law but not the spiritual and more personal aspects of the Law.
I am going to explain who those religious authorities were as I talk about the outward challenges to Jesus’ authority that they presented, as found mostly in Matthew’s Gospel. Pharisees were basically the religious party. Their ultimate aim was to follow every bit of the written Law of Moses, the Jewish people attempted to follow in their daily living, as strictly as humanly possible. They also follow the oral laws added to the written Law the Pharisees had developed down through the centuries long after Moses was alive. The common people saw them as ideally following the Law to the letter. Now, not all Pharisees were as hard-hearted and strict because both Nicodemus and the Apostle Paul were Pharisees. However, Jesus often criticized the Pharisees of his time as being hypocritical and uncaring.
In chapter 9 of Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees question why Jesus eats with sinners and outcasts. Their Law would completely shun that kind of behavior. They wouldn’t eat with sinners and outcasts and Gentiles (all non-Jews) or help them in anyway. They despised that he broke their rules such as allowing the disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath or Jesus to heal on the Sabbath. He healed a blind man, a man with a withered hand, and a paralyzed man on the Jewish Sabbath day, which is Saturday. They accused him of committing blasphemy for equating himself with God. He called himself Son of God and said that as God was working so was he. And, they despised that he referred to himself as the Messiah by saying he was “the heir of David” and would rule for all time, which in Judaism meant he was the Messiah. The Pharisees wanted to stop these perceived blasphemous declarations.
Another religious authority mentioned in the gospels is the scribes who wanted to be seen as ranked first in religious society, meaning all of ancient Jewish society. They were wealthy and overtly proud of themselves. They were the Pharisees who studied and knew the Jewish law. We could say that they were Jesus’ staunches opponents because they disliked his refusal to follow all the rules.
The scribes, along with the other Pharisees, wanted to see a sign from Jesus, as mentioned by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, that he was in fact the “Son of God.” They wanted visual proof as if the miracles he was enacting were not enough. Perhaps they were not around when Jesus provided those miracles such as 5000 plus people with enough food to eat on very few loaves of bread and a measly amount of fish or, when he turned water into wine or, healing a person lame for their entire life, now able to walk. The scribes were tempting Jesus to do something ‘magical’ right in front of their eyes. When they heard Jesus tell the paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven as he was healed, the proclaimed him a blasphemer because only God can forgive our sins.
The Sadducees were not like the scribes and Pharisees for they were a political party of Jews in favor of the Roman Empire. Sadducees were priests but not all priests were Sadducees. They accepted only the written Law and not the oral law developed by the Pharisees. They denied bodily resurrection and God’s sovereignty over humanity. They believed that people themselves could establish their own destiny and not only follow God’s will for their lives. That Sadducees’ principle is actually something a lot of people, even many Christians, believe or at least follow the practice of in their lives today, masters and mistresses of their own destinies. Let’s face it; humans want to control their own lives. The Sadducees main encounter with Jesus, as you also heard last week, was when they approached him and asked him about marriage and resurrection- if a man had more than one wife during his lifetime which would be his wife in eternal life? The Sadducees like the scribes and Pharisees tried to trap Jesus into making a religious or political mistake in his answers to the religious authorities’ questions.
The Herodians were the other authorities very occasionally mentioned in the gospel books. Herodians weren’t part of a religious sect of Judaism or of a political party. They were Jewish supporters of particular emperors of Rome, the Herods, such as the Herod Antipas of Jesus’ time. The Herodians tried to solve moral and ethical problems through the government and not Judaism. And, they too attempted to trap Jesus with the question of whether or not it was proper to pay tax to Caesar, the Roman emperor found in Matthew, chapter 22.
Just as with the Herodians, the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees all tried to trap Jesus with their tricky questions so that they could try to have him silenced and killed. He was a huge threat to their authority calling them serpents and hypocrites and the like. Jesus followed the practices of the Law that didn’t follow the laws exactly but tended to lean more on the side of fulfilling human needs with compassion and care for their well-being. Jesus interpreted how believers were to live their lives differently by, in some cases, interpreting some of Jewish laws contrarily or inversely such as not only forgiving others up to 3 times as the Pharisees taught but, forgiving another 7×7 and, in other words, always forgiving.
The four groups I have discussed today gave Jesus and his disciples many headaches through their adversarial questioning and, actually, their fear of his authority so embraced by many of their people. All these groups were blind to the revelation of the living God, clinging to the Lord as they knew God through the religion of Jewish Law or looking to the government for answers instead of to God first. The Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees and Herodians all created value judgments about Jesus without examining their own qualifications to do that. Even though they likely would not have admitted it, they were far from perfect. They practiced pharisaism- value judgments based on their own high opinion of themselves and their practices.
What are our pharisaisms today? We too, as Rodger discussed last week, try to limit who can be one of God’s children through our value judgments of others. We too interpret scripture as if it is the only way to interpret it. We too may think we are a truer church than some other denominations or independent churches, as they often do the same. We too may want to shun others as sinners unworthy of our care and love like alcoholics, transgender people or people who have abortions, as if we aren’t sinners too. We too cast certain people outside the limits of believers as if they are untouchable perhaps like the homeless and LGBT people. In case we are tempted to say, “Oh those terrible Pharisees,” we too can act like them in our judgments of others. Jesus, on the other hand ate with those thought of as sinners and those on the outside of society. He taught them and was their friend. Yes, far too often, we fail to take the proverbial log out of our own eye before we cast dispersions or value judgments on another. We too fail to follow Jesus’ greatest commandments to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor, all people.
Going back to that definition of pharisaism as based on our own assumed secure position in righteousness, we may see that perhaps it is best not to judge at all. We ought not try to trick others with our questions and value judgments of them, gossip about them or attempt to turn them into outcasts. Maybe it would be better to examine our own worthiness and attempt to live our own lives more fully drawing closer to God in Jesus Christ. Amen.