A ruined dinner party
Luke 7: I forgive your sins.
It’s intended to be a formal dinner in the home of a community leader. However, some of the formality is waved off. After all, Simon thinks Jesus ought to be impressed and humbled that a common person like Jesus is even invited to the home of a Pharisee. Then, to Simon’s surprise this disgusting woman has managed to slip into the room. Some servant will pay the price for that! She ruins Simon’s nice dinner party. Not only is he scandalized that such a person would dare enter his very house, but she’s dominating the moment. With all this foolishness going on how can he properly impress his guests? Jesus is obviously uncomfortable with her groveling at his feet, but he’s clearly moved by her sorrow. Maybe Jesus doesn’t know her story? Its then that Jesus speaks first as a teacher and then as a Savior. This woman is overwhelmed by her sins. Simon has missed the point because he doesn’t see himself as a sinner. Jesus then turns his attention to this poor, grieving woman and says the greatest words she’s ever heard: “I forgive your sins.” Simon hears blasphemy, she hears salvation. In this story, do I best identify with Simon or with this miserable sinner?
Take Away: We tend to see ourselves as the “good people” in Gospel stories, maybe, though, we’re supposed to recognize ourselves as those who aren’t so good.
Mark 8: Keep a sharp eye out for the contaminating yeast of the Pharisees.
Huge, undeniable miracles are being worked by Jesus every day. He’s just finished feeding 4000 with just seven loaves of bread and he’s about to give sight to a blind man. Meanwhile, his approach is angering the most religious people: the Pharisees. One of their number demands that Jesus do a miracle for him. Jesus refuses and promises that this man will never see one. You’d think that Jesus and the Pharisees would be best friends. These religious leaders are knowledgeable, committed, and faithful. Many of their traits fit perfectly with Jesus’ call that people take up their cross and follow him. However, instead of being some of the most exemplary disciples in the world they become the source of pain and division. They end up killing Jesus and then, after the resurrection, trying to kill the Church. Jesus, after his encounter with this specific Pharisee, warns his disciples about the danger of being contaminated by them. It’s a very short journey from being radically in love with Jesus to being radically in love with one’s beliefs about Jesus. It’s all too easy to take one’s eyes off him and to start looking around at other followers and deciding that they don’t quite measure up. Just down the page from this incident, Peter first confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and is almost immediately told by the Lord that he’s acting as Satan. Listen, it’s easier than we think it is to be contaminated by the yeast of the Pharisees. Long after their branch of Judaism has dried up, their legacy of division lives on.
Take Away: I want to love Jesus and avoid being too much in love with my opinions and beliefs about him.
Letting the Pharisees have it
Matthew 23: They talk a good line, but they don’t live it.
This is the chapter in which Jesus nails the Pharisees. In line after line he pronounces judgment on them. They, who know more about the Laws of the Old Testament than anyone else, have strained all the grace and mercy out of it, leaving only a brittle, unyielding, damning crust. They load people down with all that while stripping away the very essence of God. Rather than pointing the way to a living relationship with a good, loving, and gracious God they point to rules and regulations and assured failure and doom. To say it gently, Jesus thinks these rule-making, burden-loading, grace-denying individuals are bad people. We Christians need to pay careful attention to this. We understand that living in the Lord means that we abstain from some things and pursue others. However, if that approach becomes the dominant one; if keeping all the rules becomes the definition of who we are in God; if we come to believe that “knowing about” God is our primary calling, then we’ve taken a dangerous step toward the religion of the Pharisees. In contrast to that brittle religion our Lord pictures God’s desire for people as being like that of the mother hen who extends her embrace to her chicks. If we lose sight of that and make the “hard side” the main element of our relationship with the Lord we have more in common with the Pharisees than we might want to think.
Take Away: Christianity is more about love and grace and mercy than it is about knowing all the right things and keeping a list of rules.
A lesson from the bakery
Matthew 16: Keep a sharp eye out for Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.
I wonder what Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There’s a clue just a few lines earlier. These people want Jesus to prove himself to them, probably by performing some miracle. Jesus dismisses them by saying that they’re going to get proof alright, the powerful proof of life out of death when, as Jonah returned from the deep, he, himself, will return from the grave. At that point Jesus turns his back on them and walks away. Later he warns his disciples to beware of their “yeast.” Those who bake bread know about yeast. A little is worked into the dough so it will rise, becoming soft and tasty. Jesus says that there’s “yeast” that can work its way into every part of our lives, bringing not good results, but bad. It’s the insistence on God doing things our way, having to prove himself to us before we’ll believe. In the encounters of the Pharisees and Sadducees with Jesus there’s always a tug of war concerning who’s in charge and what Jesus has to do to satisfy them. Jesus warns his disciples to not fall into that trap. Before we know it this approach will work its way into our lives. When God doesn’t do things our way and in our time, we’ll begin to doubt him and his goodness. Later in this same passage, Peter first declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Later on though, we see the yeast of the Pharisees when he argues against Jesus proceeding God’s way, thinking he knows better. If Peter, in basically the same conversation can go from a great statement of faith to one of “my way is better” I’d better take warning. This yeast can work its way into my life before I even know it.
Take Away: The idea that I always know just what God should do and how he should do it can sneak into my thinking and take root there.