If we had lived

December 19, 2012

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 23:29-36.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out! You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Amen, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”

This is the seventh woe delivered by Jesus in this chapter. I was going to include it with yesterday’s reflection, but it seemed to call out for its own thoughts. The New American Bible notes call this the most serious of the indictments against the Pharisees and scribes.

I’m reading From Jesus to Christ by Paula Fredriksen and today read a section that speaks to this passage. “Here we have first-century Judaism, inherently elitist, focused on meritorious works. The priestly aristocrats abused their flock, which their legalistic opponents, the Pharisees, held in contempt. The religion had so lost its way that it no longer understood the very concepts that stood at the heart of its own scriptures, namely, ethical monotheism and the mission to the Gentiles….All four gospels, despite the variety of their theological focus and presentation of Jesus, unite stylistically, or strategically, at this point: the Pharisees are the dramatic foils for Jesus. They provide a stark backdrop against which the truth of the Gospel can shine forth. Religiously, they are everything that Jesus is not. They scorn sinners; Jesus seeks them out. They focus on manmade rituals and rules (Sabbath observance, food laws, purity laws, Temple sacrifice); Jesus is concerned with weightier matters — forgiveness of sin, true repentance, love of God and neighbor, and so on. Such evangelical characterizations are clearly polemical, and polemic rarely provides reliable description….The caricature of Pharisaism in particular, and Judaism in general, severely compromises our understanding both of the life and teaching of Jesus and of the images of him conveyed by the New Testament texts. The evangelists, reading the post-70 situation of Jewish/Christian debate back into the lifetime of Jesus, presented the Pharisees as his chief opponents.

“Two significant facts intervene between the lifetime of Jesus and the composition of the gospels: first, Rome had destroyed Jerusalem; and, second, the majority of Jews had declined to perceive Jesus as a messiah. The war with Rom affected the new movement in numerous ways. It provided yet another incentive for the Gentile Christian disengagement from Judaism: Gentile Christianity, already evolving in ways different from Jewish Christianity — a fact evident in Paul’s letters — now had a vital political reason to disassociate both itself and its messiah from a people in such bad odor. Hence these Christians not only underscored the nonpolitical character of Jesus’ message and messiahship but also so segregated him from his historical context that often he appears as a leader without (Jewish) followers.

“Rome’s victory also affected the perception of Jesus’ crucifixion. Crucifixion…was a Roman form of punishment reserved particularly for political troublemakers. In the wake of the seven-year-long Jewish insurrection, a Gentile Christianity wishing to champion a crucified messiah would have to divest both terms of their opprobrium in a Gentile context. This is chiefly the task of the Passion narratives, as we shall see, but the evangelists laid the groundwork for the Passion in their presentation of the opposition to Jesus’ ministry. That opposition, they argue, was Jewish, not Roman. The result: Rome and Christianity are both on the same side against the Jews.

“The evangelists argue further that this opposition was specifically Pharisaic — yet another effect of the war with Rome, as well as the measure of Christian frustration with Jewish nonresponse….The only organized group to have survived the war reasonably intact was the Pharisees. Contemporary post-70 Gentile Christianity accordingly face an adversarial or indifferent Pharisaic Jewish audience; and this is the situation projected, through the gospel narratives, onto the ministry of Jesus as well. These retrospective controversies are thus somewhat contrived.

“[T]he gospels and Acts reveal the opposite of what they wish to convey: namely, that much of Jesus’ teaching, even as they present it, is Pharisaic; and that the early Jesus movement drew some of its first followers from the ranks of the Pharisees, Paul being the most conspicuous. But even it, despite the prima facie implausibility, these controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees had actually occurred, what then? In circa 30 C.E., the Pharisees were only one of a number of groups in Palestine, and a small minority at that. They neither represented nor controlled the Judaism of Jesus’ day. If they had disagreed with Jesus (on what issues is now very difficult to say) they might have refused to eat with him or otherwise avoided his company; or they might have disputed with him. But there is little else they could have done. The Pharisees in fact all but disappear from the Passion narratives, where the Sadducean nobility and especially the High Priest emerge as the chief movers behind Jesus’ execution. All these considerations indicate that, at the very least, the evangelists’ image of a Jesus beleaguered by constant Pharisaic opposition draws more on the circumstances of their own day than on the Palestinian ministry of Jesus.”

I quoted Fredriksen at length because I think it’s important to more clearly understand the role of the Pharisees and why the gospel writers treated them as they did. In truth I fear I would have behaved just as Jesus accuses the Pharisees, that I would have joined with nearly everyone else in condemning Jesus and abetting his death. Who speaks in God’s name today to whom I turn a deaf ear? I don’t know because my mind is closed to anyone who may be a self-proclaimed prophet or wise man? Why would I have acted differently toward Jesus? Has God stopped sending emissaries to us? Has He stopped using the voice of others to speak to us? I don’t know, so in many ways I am like the Pharisees. I too often scoff at those who proclaim God’s truth too loudly. I question with an arrogant skepticism and dismiss those who claim authority in God’s name. Jesus tells me to keep an open mind, a receptive mind, so that I don’t risk shutting out the voice of God. And to not be so quick to condemn those who speak in God’s name. If they uphold His commands and live lives of compassion and justice, He may be using them as His instruments, as His voice. That’s really hard to discern — then and now.




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