© 2021 Evan D. Garner
We face an interpretive challenge this morning as we read about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7. It’s easy for us to know whose side we’re supposed to be on, and that leads us to assume the worst of Jesus’ opponents and to think of them only as a Christianized caricature of who they really were. But the problem with that is two-fold. Not only do we fail to recognize the full humanity and faithfulness of the Pharisees, but we also fail to appreciate the power of Jesus’ teaching because it’s just too easy to write off what he says as intended for someone else—hypocrites of biblical proportions—and not for us.
So today I’d like you to forget just about everything you know about the Pharisees and give them a second chance. You likely have heard preachers and Sunday school teachers explain that the Pharisees were among the most faithful, observant Jews of their day. But you may not have heard that they prayed and fasted and tithed not only for themselves but on behalf of their less-fastidious compatriots. They considered it part of their religious duty to go the extra mile and do the extra thing in order to give everyone—even the relatively unreligious in their community—a good start with God. In a very real way, the Pharisees were not the exclusive hardliners of their day but the generous progressives.
The Pharisaic movement in Judaism began as a reaction to the concentration of power among the religious elites. During the Babylonian exile, after Solomon’s temple had been destroyed and God’s people were removed from their land, worship needed to take on a different shape. There was no temple in which sacrifices could be offered, so faithful Jews began gathering on the sabbath wherever they could to read the holy scriptures, to celebrate the domestic traditions of their people like circumcision and keeping kosher, and to lift up their prayers and praises and laments. In order to maintain the traditions that defined them as a people, they had to improvise and find new ways of doing ancient things so that, even without the priests to help them, they could be a holy people in God’s sight.
After the exile was over and the people were allowed to return to their homeland, a controversy arose. Some wanted to go back to the old ways and rebuild the temple and forget everything that had happened during the exile, but others recognized that Judaism itself had changed and that what it meant to be faithful to God had changed. So, when the priests became the central authority in Jerusalem and insisted that everything revert to its pre-exilic pattern, a group of separatists, known as the Pharisees, refused to go along with their plan. Their faith had grown during the hardship of exile. Their newfound relationship with God was real, and they believed that all people—not just the priests—were called to a life of peculiar holiness.
When Jesus preached the nearness of God’s salvation in the synagogues and on the hillsides and along the shore, the Pharisees must have thought that they had found an ally. His populist approach would have reminded them of their own priorities—that a relationship with God was secured not primarily through temple worship but through individual holiness. But, when they saw him eating with tax collectors and sinners and touching unclean lepers and teaching disciples that they could pluck grain on the sabbath or eat with unwashed hands, they knew that they had a problem on their hands. They had spent centuries interpreting the Jewish customs in expansive ways that gave everyone access to a life of holiness, but, instead of furthering their work, this radical rabbi seemed to be throwing it all away.
“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked Jesus. When we think of the Pharisees as narrow-minded religious conservatives, we hear that question as if they looked down on those who weren’t holy enough. But there’s another, deeper issue at stake. In the Law of Moses, the only regulations about handwashing apply to priests in the temple. There are no rules about ordinary people washing hands or cups or pots or kettles. But, when they were without a temple, the God’s people had looked for ways that they could maintain their religious identity, and ceremonial handwashing became a universal practice—a simple pietistic way to remember that, as the people of God, all Jews were called to a life of holiness. “What’s wrong with that?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “What’s wrong with the traditions that have helped our people remember that they belong to God?”
The problem, Jesus says, isn’t the handwashing but the distorted motivation behind it. “You hypocrites!” Jesus calls them. Quoting Isaiah, he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The issue isn’t the Pharisees’ desire to make their religion accessible to everyone. It’s their tendency to confuse their methods for the thing they were intended to instill. In their attempt to democratize faithfulness, by defining in their own terms what it means to belong to God and insisting that others accept that vision, their progressivism calcified into its own version of reactionary exclusivism. Instead of making holiness available to everyone, they ended up denying that holiness to anyone who didn’t agree with them. When they could no longer tell the difference between their traditions and God’s commandments, the very ones who stood for allowing everyone in ironically became the ones who pushed others out.
Sound familiar? No matter how idyllic they are in the beginning, our attempts to mandate inclusion always result in the unintended consequences of judgment, condemnation, and hypocrisy. As Episcopalians, we are celebrated for our tolerance of everyone except those we perceive as intolerant. What does that say about our faithfulness? The way of Jesus will always expose the hypocrisy of our judgments because the way of Jesus is always more open and inclusive than we are. That way is built not on the holiness of the holiest among us but upon God’s own sacrifice and death for the sake of the world. Jesus Christ did not die for those whose lives reflect the perfect love of God but for sinners like you and me, whose best attempt is always doomed to fail. Our hope, therefore, is not that we would ever create a church or a religion or a community or a government that embodies the radical love and inclusion of God but that we would allow our vain belief that we could ever build it to die on the cross with Christ.
In times like this, when church and society are being pulled apart by the evil forces that deceive us and make us assume the worst in other people and the best in ourselves, our hope is found in Jesus. He helps us see our own hypocrisy for what it really is. And he helps us know that God’s love for us is not a reflection of our best efforts or even our best intentions but of God’s great and abiding love for the whole world. We can build no kingdom that supplants the reign of God, but thanks be to God that we don’t have to. We already belong to the one whose death and resurrection open the gates wide enough for all to walk in.