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Jesus, Friend of Pharisees

A young girl named Mary told us what was coming. Jesus would specialize in turning things topsy-turvy:
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
     and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.

We rejoice as the scene is played out again and again: Jesus lifts an adulterous woman up from the dust after her accusers have been silenced; Jesus shuts the mouths of the lawyers and scribes by asking them questions they cannot answer; Jesus screams “Woe to you” seven times at the those who think they have special insight into the ways of God.

Mary’s song is true today as well.

We love Jesus because he can stick it to the Man. He is the Icon of the Father and iconoclast of the fat cats. We see in him an ancient model of our modern selves. Deep inside we knew the Establishment types were just gaming the system and using religion to prop themselves up and keep the rest of us down. This is the kick-ass Jesus who has finally exposed all the posers and fakes in the church, the Jesus who is even now leading the charge down the aisle, away from the altar, and out the red double-doors. The Jesus who has finally confirmed all our judgments about the hypocrites and losers who populate organized religion. Jesus the hipster is turning over the tables in God’s house again. Finally, a Jesus who will tell those guys off.

Or, is it possible we’ve once again created him in our own image? Again. Mary’s song is true today as well, but perhaps the rolls have been reframed.

In modern society we love to point out that Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He crossed social boundaries. He was the friend of sinners. Sometimes we fail to note there is another group with whom he regularly dined: pharisees. What if Jesus reclined with pharisees for the very same reason he ate with the outcasts? What if he had the same mission whether he ate with Zacchaeus the taxman or with Simon the Pharisee? What if he cared for both? Perhaps the Lord knew we were all sick, all in need of a doctor.

Reading our rebellious ways into the ministry of Jesus is one of the dangers of our present age. We might assume he converted every sinner and condemned every priest. We might assume he ditched the synagogue for a day at the lake, or went to the Temple only to turn the tables. We might be surprised to discover that he loved his Father’s house, or considered the Law as sweet as honey, or longed to hear the prophets read week after week.

The same man who welcomed Matthew the tax collector was also friends with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The same man who healed and returned lepers to the community of Israel also had mercy on the daughter of a synagogue leader. The shepherd of Israel cared for the whole flock and fed all the sheep. Later, he went so far as to chase down Saul, that murderous “pharisee of pharisees” and drafted him into the Kingdom cause.

If we choose to follow the Master we must be prepared to follow him into any house. In his day the disciples were shocked because he crossed the threshold of a sinner’s home. Perhaps today he shocks us by crossing the threshold of the church? Both houses stand in desperate need of his grace, and those who will carry such grace with them.

Reader Comments (28)

Thanks for this creative and needed reminder. We become just as self-righteous as the self-righteous we disdain when we draw lines in the sand. Maybe sometimes it's just as radical to love them as the least of these.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Smith

Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie. It's true for me personally: whenever my view of Jesus allows me to disdain others, my view needs to be adjusted. Because "God is love," we can be sure that Jesus' motivations toward the Pharisees flowed from that very love. I'll bet he saw them as captives to their own sin, even as I am captive to mine.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

I tend to get more annoyed with the church than those outside of it. I needed this today. Thank you!

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca w

Nice post (got here through Andrew Gates). I'm working on an entry right now (and just maybe I'm procrastinating) about the importance of hanging out with all types of people. When you do that and have that relationship, it's hard to judge and even harder to condemn. But it makes love a heck of a lot easier.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Anderson

You're Welcome, Rebecca: We are both in the same boat. It's so easy to see people inside the church as "the enemy," even though we, too, are sinners in need of his grace--and grace from one another.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Hi Craig: I'm glad Andrew showed you the way. Be sure to leave a link to your post when you're finished procrastinating :-)

You're right: honest, loving, other-centered relationships make it so much harder to judge. I think sometimes we interpret the gospels as giving us the green light to judge hypocrisy, but hypocrites are people just like me!

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Oh Ray, you sucked me right in with all of my favorite things about Jesus, then BAM—you hit me with all the ways they feed into my justifications about my own thoughts and actions. Just because my prejudices are not directed at the "least of these" does not mean they aren't prejudices, in need of repentance.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin T. (@kt_writes)

Thanks. Good points.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan B.

I promise, Kristin: I wasn't trying to entrap you. It's just that lately I've had a newer vision of Jesus' love for every human being, because we are all held captive by sin. It doesn't matter if the sin is sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, or if it's self-righteousness and pride (or in my case, all of the above). Jesus gave us an example of the balance between truth and grace.

Also: Thanks, Dan.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

OK Ray, here it is. Thanks for asking!

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Anderson

This is one of your best posts ever, Ray. What a great way to challenge us to see Jesus himself for who he is, not to feed our puffed-up, narcissistic, neo-platonic desire to find ourselves mirrored in his eyes. What a great wake-up call.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

i totally love this. Hits the nail right on the head, there is so much Church-bashing that is really fueled by rebellion, independence, pride, dishonor and bitterness today that is seen as "righteous" because Jesus had some coarse words for the Pharisees. We are cool with accepting people who are far from God and know it (a good thing) but once someone starts to go to a Church and gets some convictions and beliefs that are a little bit different than ours they become a devil that must be rebuked at all costs, its ridiculous really

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercliff

good one, and about time someone pointed this out. bad religion can wear tight jeans or a suit. true religion can hang with both or challenge both. jesus clearly got on with the establishment most of his life because he launched his ministry from the synagogue and often spoke or taught among the faithful. i really like this post and think it's timely. can't we just honor people? sinner or saint.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersam

Oh, gracious, Ray.... now you're all up on my toes. Ouch!

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah @ Emerging Mummy

Rebecca: thanks for your kind words. I suspect that as we begin to see Jesus for who he is, we will begin to discover who we are as well.

Cliff: you're right--it's easy to take cheap shots at the church. I've done it myself too many times. And it is true that the church has hurt people. But it doesn't help matters to lash out at the modern Pharisees, because they are captive as well. Grace all around!

Sam: I laughed at this: "bad religion can wear tight jeans" In the words of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?

Sarah: My bad.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

grateful for the reminder, particularly after thinking through the 'other' side of the same coin in a recent post. thanks for writing!

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermichael j. kimpan

I agree that this is a good reminder. I get so frustrated with organized religion that I end up feeling like I am better than they are. I am not. I need to love them as much as the lost. Of course Jesus did call them a den of vipers ..

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Michael: Thank you for reading. Leave a link, I'd love to read your post.

Brad: I totally get where you're coming from, and I had to think long and hard about Jesus' strong words toward the Pharisees, but even those words flowed from love, eh?

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Thanks for this. I got very irritated not so long ago at my church when a speaker said Jesus hated the religious. It was in context, and it wasn't as if the speaker was suggesting that hate was against a person rather than a state of idolatry, but for many folk the difference isn't easy to distinguish. We risk so much by aligning being 'religious' so closely with being 'traditional' or 'old-fashioned'. This is a great reminder.

April 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHM Stanley

HM: Thanks for visiting Students of Jesus--you're always welcome! I think it's a common temptation to look at someone's faith expression outwardly and label the person a pharisee, or belittle their way of prayer or worship. I've done it, time and again, only to find later that the person I judged had a deep, personal, vibrant relationship with Jesus. It turns out that the Father has all kinds of children.

April 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Very challenging. I recently ended a friendship with someone who has become very legalistic and judgemental. I found it embarrassing that she was saying hateful things in the name of the same God that I believe in.
I thought Jesus chose to spend time with "sinners" over the company of the Pharisees. After all, how about the parable of the new wine and old wineskins?
Thanks for posting.

April 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergem

This blog post is the answer to a nagging question I’d had since attending a study last week at our church on Matthew 15. My nagging question was that because Jesus had such harsh things to say about the Pharisees calling them “hypocrites” and “blind guides of the blind” was there ever a Pharisee that he cared for besides Paul? I guess the answer would be all of them and all of us as well. Knowing that he preached in the synagogues, I guess I had hoped that there were maybe some he cared for but as you point out his mission was to all those in need, the cast offs of society as well as the blind Pharisees and those they led. Thanks for this great reminder and the answer to my nagging question. I came here by way of Rachel Held Evans blog and I will be staying.

April 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

Hi Gem: there's no question that there are modern Pharisees, who present legalism instead of the gospel of the Kingdom--and yes, they are very frustrating! I'm asking God for the grace to look past my frustration and to see their need. It's not easy, eh?

Louise: I'm glad you came to visit, and you are certainly welcome to stay! You're correct in pointing out that Jesus saved his harshest words for the Pharisees. The challenge for me is to discover how he did so while still loving the individual people, who were simply sinners trapped in religious sin. Apparently the Lord decided that (sometimes) strong words were an act of love and rescue. I want to have His heart before I use his words, don't you?

April 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

We really do have to acknowledge that we are both prodigal son and elder brother, don't we? Yet the Father in the story wanted forgiveness and abundant life for both his lost sons. Very thought provoking post-thank you.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandy

god resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
jesus had a lot of time for humble people, not so much for those full of pride. It just so happens that there is a correlation between religious performance and pride, also material wealth generally speaking. It is true though, Jesus is friend to all as he looks at the heart and is determined to reach everyone.
Personally I don't see it so much as making jesus in our own image, I mean when was the last time anyone saw someone overturning tables in a church bookstore... I know I never have. Actually many who are bitter or disilusioned with specific churches don't really have much of a line of communication to the establishment.
What I liked about Jesus was he was public, direct and yet personal going into peoples homes and talking with them face to face. These days people diride one another from pulpits or blogs but avoid face to face or put up false pretenses.
Thanks for reminder we need more of the kind of authentic friendliness Jesus had going on.

April 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEli

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