The last post ended with the claim that many Christians live lives that are divided between Sunday and the rest of the week. We live with our sin seven days a week, but God is only present in an explicit way for one of those days. That is the system in which we choose to live. I am not arguing that Christians do not consider God at all during the work-week. Many “say grace” at meals. A few read a Bible. Even fewer have a “quiet time.” These are all overtly religious acts that occur during discrete, delimited time periods. How many think that opening their office door on Monday morning has anything to do with God, never mind that it might be an act of devotion? Some find living a divided life to be distasteful, but sin and the system, both, cloud the pathway to change.
It is tempting to postulate that what we need is more religion more of the time. That hypothesis has been tested and found to be false. The Pharisees were arguably amongst the most sincere and the most zealous religious people on the planet in Jesus’ time. No one could doubt their sincerity, their commitment, or the amount of hard work they exercised in following their convictions. Unlike many in their society, the Pharisees were dead serious about God.
Jesus and the Pharisees shared an intense devotion to God and, if Jesus were seeking to recruit people who could jumpstart his kingdom, the Pharisees might seem to have fit the bill. Instead, Jesus chose a bunch of fishermen. What was he thinking? That Jesus did not jump on the Pharisee-bandwagon ought to make us straighten up in our chairs immediately. Despite our expectations, not only did Jesus not pursue the Pharisees, he was unreservedly hard on the them. Instead of siding with them as potential allies, Jesus introduced a paradigm shift that served to leave the Pharisees in the dark. Jesus’ message was so different from the prevailing religion of his day that it got him killed. People hated the Son of God and his newfangled message with a passion so great that they ultimately crucified him.
The problem was that Jesus sought to dismantle the religion of his day. By his own words, he was not intent on eliminating the Law,1 but he was intent on re-envisioning the means and the ends of peoples’ lives.2 Jesus’ message invoked negative responses from people because he addressed issues related to the deepest questions of which human beings are capable of asking, questions that mean a great deal to all of us: What is life all about? How do I live a meaningful life? How do I please God? What is the right way to live? and, in the words of the commenter on the post… How do I walk with God and yet lead a responsible life? As adults, most of us have given at least some thought to these questions. But, who wants to consider the possibility that the entire chosen direction of their life may be wrong, that we might well have been living a lie? We should not be surprised, then, that the Pharisees took Jesus’ attacks rather personally.
In general, people do their level best to answer these questions in a satisfying way, but sincerity is not linked necessarily to truth. The Pharisees were a group who had answered all of these questions so effectively that it was difficult to argue with them. They could point to chapter and verse for everything they lived and taught. Nevertheless, Jesus stung the Pharisees with a nearly incomprehensible charge:
“In vain do they worship me.” (Matt 15:9)
In vain. In vain! Imagine how the Pharisees felt after Jesus told them that their finest efforts were utterly worthless; that everything they taught, the very basis of their lives, was nothing but smoke and mirrors; that what they thought was worship was not worship, at all. It is crucial to notice that the Pharisees worshiped God: they sang hymns, read the Scriptures, delivered a sermon. They worshiped, but all in vain. There is little wonder that the Jews sought to murder Jesus. In the midst of a highly religious society, Jesus struck at the core of its beliefs about how God expects human beings to live. Considering that Jesus’ words are timeless, we ought to reflect on the possibility that we, too, might worship God in vain, despite all appearances to the contrary. Unless we take Jesus’ words very seriously, we may find ourselves in the position of holding the Pharisees’ cloaks as they nail Christ to the cross.
The only way to make sense of Jesus’ attitude toward the Pharisees is to note that he came to give us, not more religion, but a different kind of religion, or more accurately, a different kind of life. The life that Jesus came to tell us about, that he modeled and sacrificed himself for, is not divided between the sacred and the secular.
1 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17-18)
2 “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)