by ProfDave, ©2021
(Jul. 15, 2021) — For those of you who did not grow up in Sunday School, the Pharisees were the rabbinical party in first century Judaism whom Jesus most criticized. Actually, He had a lot in common with them. John the baptizer implied that He was one of them. He, like them, was orthodox and observant. He, like them, took the Hebrew Scriptures very seriously, even literally. He, like them, believed in angels, resurrection, and Messiah. The priestly party, the Sadducees, did not. It was the latter that eventually convicted Him of blasphemy and turned Him over to the Romans as a rebel.
Jesus had a problem, however, with the attitude of some Pharisees. It seemed to Him that many of them worshiped the law, rather than the Lawgiver. He had a problem with a self-righteous attitude that treated the law as their law, added layers upon layers of arcane interpretation, and closed off the way to God from the common people. His was a Judaism of the heart, of the shema: loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as oneself. He scandalously focused His ministry on common, broken people – shysters, traitors, prostitutes, lepers and garden-variety sinners. Yes, those people.
Jesus didn’t say that orthodoxy, observance, and morality were not important. Ideas have consequences and behavior has meaning. It is hard to love a God we do not know or whom we seriously misunderstand. And if we love Him in truth, worship and even sacrifice will be our highest joy. And how can we say that we love Him and not pay attention to what He says and at least try to follow His instructions?
Sin (singular) is not the violation of this or that law – this or that unwise choice – but separation from God. Willful ignorance of God and defiance of His law separate us from God, but so does sanctimonious self-righteousness. “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” No one is so bad as the one who is too good for God.
According to their rules, when a Pharisee touched a sinner, the Pharisee became unclean. Jesus touched sinners. He went out of His way to touch sinners. All kinds of sinners, even lepers. When Jesus touched a sinner, the sinner became clean. Lepers were healed, the blind saw, the deaf heard, the corrupt became honest, the immoral became pure, and the dead rose again. It happened to me. He touched me and I’m clean today! Has He touched you?
Jesus was God and all that. Whatever God touches is good. The desert blossoms like the rose and crocuses spring up out of the rocks. A four-lane highway of holiness runs through the wilderness [Isaiah 35]. It isn’t quite like that with me. There’s some places I can’t go – not because I’m too holy, but because I’m not holy enough. But just maybe the followers of Jesus are supposed to be like that. There is a touch that contaminates and a touch that heals. The difference is the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – in us. Think Mother Theresa in Calcutta. It is easy for me to tell someone they are wrong. But does my touch heal? Or just condemn?
It is said that Jesus didn’t have anything to say about politics. He did not encourage revolution or regime change in first century Palestine. But he was concerned that his followers would behave as salt and light in whatever place in society that they found themselves – including citizenship. That would be revolution enough in any system. It is the Scriptural duty of government to restrain evil. Are you an agent of Jesus where you live, work and cast your ballot?
But the point is relationship. Loving knowledge, loving “church,” loving “the law” is not what Jesus is about. Doctrine, church, and law can become distractions – idolatry! If you love God in spirit and in truth, you will love His children. You will care about what Jesus cares about and your heart will break with what breaks the heart of God. Broken people.
That’s why Jesus came and Jesus died. For broken people. Like you and me. When Adam and Eve broke away from God their humanity was broken. We don’t really break the laws of God any more than we break the law of gravity: we break ourselves on them. That’s what they are written for: to keep us safe. Whether you call it the wrath of God or natural consequences it is a world of pain for which we repeatedly volunteer. And in that pain, God shouts at us to return to Him. Jesus took our pain upon Himself on the cross so that our brokenness could be healed. So that our separation from God can be reconciled. In fact, that reconciliation is healing!
But on the way to the cross, Jesus expressed the compassion of God by hanging with the low life and blistering the religious establishment and the powers-that-be for their self-righteous and uncaring attitude. He did not condone sin. He did not enable or celebrate it. Sin is what breaks you and everyone who loves you – and that brokenness breaks the heart of God. But he loves the broken – because he loves the broken. Passionately, fanatically, sacrificially. All the way to the cross. All the way through the cross to you!
What would he say about me and my “rabbinical party?” Are we inordinately proud of our orthodoxy and of having our heads together? Are we so into our moral standards, rules and boundaries that we barricade our hearts and churches against the “publicans and sinners” of our own day? Are we more motivated by spiritual pride in condemning the evils of our day than by compassion for the victims? What would Jesus say? Would he point a calloused finger at us and call us vipers? Would he come after us with an improvised whip?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.
Nailed it! Thank you.
Well thought out. Well expressed.