Occupy: The Religion of the Pharisees and the Religion(s) of the World

In case I’ve neglected to make this clear, this series of posts is intended to be an extension of the sermon series “The Dirt Under His Nails” at Tri-State Fellowship.

In our last post, we looked at the question of the paralytic from Luke 5.   Today we’ll look at how Jesus’ response was received by the Pharisees who were gathered there.

WHO WERE THE PHARISEES?

The Pharisees were some of Jesus’ most fierce opponents.  They appear in every gospel, and rarely in a positive light.  The word “Pharisee” didn’t refer to an occupation – it referred to an ideology or a set of beliefs, like the way we might use “republican” or “democrat.”  But the word “Pharisee” was used to describe a people with a particular religious system.

Though the exact origin of the name “Pharisee” is debated, it seems to be related to the word paras which means “to divide” or “separate.”  Some ancient writers tell a story of a time when a king gathered the religious leaders together and asked them to hold him morally accountable.  But when one of them made the insinuation that the king was conceived through his mother being raped, he was outraged.  What was worse was that the Pharisees only suggested that the accuser be given a slap on the wrist.  From then on the Pharisees were indeed separate from the political establishment.

But there’s another reason, a deeper, more spiritual reason.  In the years before Jesus there was a man named Antiochus IV, who was among the successors to Alexander the Great.  The problem with Antiochus was simple: pride.  He changed his name to Antiochus Epiphanes, which meant “God manifest.”   He slapped the Jews in the face by not only abolishing their religion, but by sacrificing a pig (an unclean animal) in their temple and putting up a statue of Zeus (which some literature reports as bearing an eerie resemblance to Antiochus himself…).  The problem was only set right in 165 B.C. following a revolt – it’s actually where the story of Hanukah comes from.

So, despite the negative picture we’re given of the Pharisees, we can see that there is a sense in which we can identify with their motives: no one wants to see their religion corrupted again.  Too much was at stake.  And so the Pharisees became known as the people who upheld the law, and where the text of scripture was silent they added their own oral traditions, of which there were…many. 

So when Jesus tells this man “Your sins are forgiven,” they’re understandably shocked.  Why?  Let’s say a husband wrongs his wife.  Their pastor or marriage counselor sits down with both of them, looks at the husband and says, “I forgive you.”  The wife is outraged.  The counselor has no right to offer forgiveness: she was the one who had been hurt!  The only person who can offer true forgiveness is the person who had been hurt by the wrongdoing.  Sin was an offense against God.  Therefore only God could forgive sin.  For Jesus to offer forgiveness meant that He was God in the flesh.

FUNDAMENTALLY SPEAKING

In our present day, it’s common to compare the Pharisees with the religious crowd we encounter.

In the last century, we saw a group of people who had seen the Christian faith becoming increasingly adapted to the world.  The famous Scopes “monkey trial,” rightly or wrongly, called into question to trustworthiness of the Bible.  Maybe this was no pig-in-the-temple kind of scenario, but Christians now longed for safety.  They wanted a means to safeguard the faith.

The answer was to articulate their faith through a series of works called “The Fundamentals.”  It was actually just a series of pamphlets designed to articulate the basic, secure principles of Christianity.

But here was the problem: like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, these “fundamentalists” could not stop themselves from adding to this list of rules and demands.  The desire to safeguard the faith had turned into an unholy project of itself.

Which means if you have any church background, you’ve probably run across many-a-pastor who offers gentle yet condescending advice on not dancing, playing cards, listening to rock-n-roll or attending certain kinds of movies.

This also means that Jesus’ message of forgiveness is something you’re more likely to roll your eyes at than take all that seriously.  After all, what is sin if it’s just some violation of a stupid rule in some stupid fundamentalist handbook?

CREATING YOUR OWN RELIGION

Our culture truly is at an impasse: the next election season only reveals just how far apart our nation is getting.

On the one hand we have the TEA Party, who complains of Government corruption and sees a solution through fiscal responsibility.  On the other hand we have Occupy Wall Street, who complains of Corporate corruption and sees a solution through redistribution of wealth and social programming.

Which means we have a nation where some are saying that occupying Wall Street is a really good idea but occupying Iraq was a really bad idea.  Or vice versa.

But both are ultimately religious systems in their own right: both identify what they believe is the fundamental problem with humanity and offer a means to fix it.  So it doesn’t matter if it’s a Jesus fish or a “Coexist” sticker on the bumper of your Prius, you have a means to a better end.

Now, please understand: politics are important.  But (at best) they offer immediate improvements without ultimate salvation.

See, the problem with both is that both assume the problem is external.  Both assume you can draw a line between the good and bad, and both assume that they’re the truly good ones.  The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn so famously wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago)

Jesus came to replace that line – not by covering over it with religious activity, but by paying for the debt of sin through His cross.  He authenticates His ability to offer such forgiveness by healing the sick, including this man.  Though it would have been far easier to simply say “your sins are forgiven,” Jesus proves His authority by having the man walk home.

PRIORITY

This is why the next section is about the call of Levi.  In those days, tax collectors had a reputation for corruption, essentially government-sanctioned extortionists.  So when Levi throws a party in Jesus’ honor, the Pharisees are again outraged that Jesus would maintain such associations.

But Jesus’ call to “follow” Him means that He wants priority over all things in our life: career, health, family, even our own lives, as we’ll see further into Luke’s gospel.  Jesus wants priority over Levi’s irreligion, but He also wants priority over the religion of the Pharisees.

Which finally raises the question of priority for each of us.  Religion – whether through moral behavior or political strategies – will always take priority over Jesus’ gospel so long as we see our problem as external behavior rather than internal affliction.

We’ll see how that plays out tomorrow, as we look at the story of the ten lepers.

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