This sermon was preached prior to the fourth anniversary of the October 27 terrorist attack.
Our gospel reading today is a simple one. A parable of Jesus with a clear message: don’t be self-righteous and don’t treat others with contempt. Be humble and treat people with respect.
Jesus drives the point home with a story about two characters who would have been very familiar to his first-century, Jewish audience. The first is a Pharisee, member of a Jewish sect that was known for its scrupulous observance of the religious law. The second character is a Jewish tax collector. Now, nobody is fond of tax collectors. But in the first-century Roman empire, Jewish tax collectors were seen as traitors to their people. They took peoples’ money and gave it to their oppressors. And they often took more than was necessary and kept the extra for themselves.
At first glance, it seems obvious whose prayer God would favor more. The Pharisee lives simply, fasting twice a week, and sharing his money with his community. And the tax collector is a fraudster, a hoarder of wealth, an enemy of the people.
But in a shock twist that will be familiar to those of us who have been practicing Christianity for a while, Jesus says that is the seemingly unworthy person who is right with God. Because even though the Pharisee does the right things, he is treating others with contempt in his heart.
Let’s be honest about what a tall order this is from Jesus. Not only do we have to do the good things but to get credit for it we also have to think good thoughts about people? I wonder if Jesus would have changed his mind about this if he had ever seen Twitter.
On the one hand it seems like too much to ask, to think good thoughts while also doing good things. But on the other hand, it’s hard to argue with Jesus when he suggests that the prayer of “Thank God I’m not like these other jerks” is not a good prayer. The tax collector has the better prayer, which is more like “Dang, I’m really messing up here and need a little help.”
So that about sums it up. This is not one of those complicated parables where the disciples are all confused and have to ask Jesus to explain it later. And yet, something unfortunate happened. And that is that, rather than internalizing the lesson to be humble and treat others with respect, Christians have instead redirected the contempt towards the Pharisees.
In the gospels and in Christian preaching the Pharisees are often a foil to Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees are portrayed as legalistic, hypocritical, smug, uncaring, and even murderous, sometimes joining the plot to arrest Jesus and eliminate him. This caricature is so deeply embedded in Western culture that even Webster’s dictionary defines “pharasaic” as “marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.” By contrast, Jesus is pragmatic, authentic, humble, compassionate, and peaceful. The Pharisees are Lex Luthor to Jesus’s Superman. A rivalry that perhaps makes for a good story. But when we take that story out of context it leads to trouble.
So here’s some context. Jews at the time were in the middle of a political crisis. Their land was occupied by a foreign oppressor, the Roman empire. Within the Jewish people, factions had developed in response to this crisis. They offered different calls to action and they didn’t always agree. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was part of a family fight among Jews about how Jews would survive.
The first faction, the Pharisees, believed that God would send a messiah if every Jew obeyed the law. Hence their attention to the law: their liberation was tied to it. They were popular but they were not the most powerful faction. In fact, they were a relatively closed society. They stayed together, ate together, and did not associate with people who didn’t share their commitment to ritual and moral purity. Their response to the Romans was purification.
The second faction, the Sadducees, were the real power players. They were members of the Jewish aristocracy and most of them were Temple priests. Because of their proximity to financial and religious power, the Romans gave them some political power. The local Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, consisted mostly of Sadducees. More radical Jewish factions considered them to be collaborators who were dedicated to preserving the Temple by placating the Romans. Their response to the Romans was accommodation.
The third faction, the Essenes, were a sort-of monastic community who lived in the wilderness while waiting for the apocalypse - a final battle between good and evil. They thought that the Jerusalem Jews had gone astray and dedicated themselves to a strict lifestyle with strict work schedules, required fasting, and punishments for things like interrupting each other, talking at meals, and laughing at inappropriate times. Some people have thought that John the Baptist was an Essene. Their response to the Romans was separation.
Finally, the fourth faction was called the “Fourth Philosophy'' and consisted of several groups committed to violent resistance. One group was the Sicarri - their name comes from the Latin word for “dagger.” They kidnapped and assassinated Jewish officials they thought were in league with the Romans. I’ve heard that they hid daggers under their cloaks they would use to stab Roman soldiers in public before escaping into the crowd. Another group was the Zealots who urged armed rebellion to take back the land. One of the Twelve Apostles was called Simon the Zealot and may have been a member of this group. Their response to the Romans was opposition.
So those are the four groups and the four strategies: purification, accommodation, separation, and opposition. The crisis culminated in a Jewish rebellion against the Romans that was put down by the Roman army, who destroyed the Jewish temple and looted its treasure in the year 70. This was about forty years after Jesus.
In the aftermath, many of the factions faded. The Fourth Philosophy was defeated in battle. The Sadducees and priests were unemployed. The Essenes were presumably still out in the wilderness. With the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish world had lost its center of gravity. And of all the groups, it was the Pharisees who were best equipped for this new world. Because they had directed so much energy to interpreting the law they were able to reorganize Judaism around the book instead of the temple.
By doing this they gave their people a future. Their rabbis developed the oral teaching tradition that evolved into modern Judaism. So the Jews who we know today, our neighbors and friends and colleagues, are spiritual descendants of the Pharisees. So when we hear or read caricatures of the Pharisees in our scriptures or in our tradition, we might ask ourselves, “Would I say this about the Jews in my life who I love and the Jews in my city who I respect?”
The other group who survived the destruction of the temple was much smaller and less powerful but probably more familiar to us. It was the followers of Jesus. Over time, they expanded their ministry to include non-Jews. And eventually, Christianity became a Gentile religion that was, ironically and perhaps tragically, endorsed by the empire itself. We are the descendants of these Christians. Which means we are outsiders to the Jewish family. And so we have to be careful about appropriating Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees. That was a family fight that we were never part of.
It’s kind of like how you can criticize your own parents or siblings all day, but when your partner or spouse says it’s like, uh uh. Nope. You do not get to say that. You are not part of this.
It’s a little bit like that. Except that the consequences are way higher. There is a huge danger in appropriating these old arguments for ourselves. Contempt for the Pharisees has been used by Christians to dehumanize Jews and justify all manner of discrimination and violence against them. It is one of the many facets of white supremacy.
I don’t need to tell anyone here that the genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany was conceived, planned, carried out, and justified by Christians. Something that you might not have heard is that the Nazis actually reprinted Martin Luther’s writings against the Jews and handed them out at rallies. Luther was not some fringe crackpot. He was the founder of Protestantism. Entire denominations are named after him. His words had enormous consequences. Even hundreds of years after his death.
And I probably don’t need to remind anyone that Christian antisemitism is alive and well closer to home. Here in Pittsburgh, we are approaching the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life terrorist attack. On October 27, 2018 Pittsburgh became the site of the largest mass murder of Jews in the United States. The shooter was motivated by contempt for Jews and contempt for immigrants. The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill drew his attention because one of the congregations who worshiped there, Dor Hadash, gave financial support to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was originally founded to help Jewish immigrants and was later inspired by Jewish values to help other immigrants as well. (On a side note, when we learned about this connection, The Commonwealth donated some money to HIAS as a gesture of sympathy and solidarity with the Jewish community’s refusal to be intimidated.)
I wish we could say that it is surprising that a killer like this would emerge in Pittsburgh. But unfortunately, Pennsylvania is a hotbed of white supremacist organizing according to the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A friend who lives in my hometown, about twenty minutes south of here, recently told me that one morning everyone woke up to find leaflets with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on their driveways. The leaflets were sealed in plastic bags filled with sand so that they would be resistant to wind and water.
But it’s not just weirdos and cranks. It’s people with power. Doug Mastriano is running for governor on a platform of White Christian Nationalism. He uses the social media network Gab which was used by the Tree of Life shooter to announce his attack. He paid the owner of Gab, a vocal anti-Semite, $5000 to consult on his campaign. We already know where this is going. We've already seen it.
The stakes are very high. So what can we do as Christians?
First, within our own Christian world, we can develop a better understanding of the Pharisees - even as they are portrayed in our own scriptures. First thing to note is that the Pharisees were not present in the crucifixion stories. Jews did not kill Jesus. The Romans did. In fact, Pharisees often seem interested in Jesus’ ideas and even defended his followers. Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner. Pharisees asked for his opinions about theology. Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod’s plot. Pharisees defended Peter and Paul in the Jewish council. Heck, Paul was a Pharisee, and he basically became the founder of Christianity. This doesn’t mean that Pharisees worshiped Jesus or even agreed with him. Far from it. But we should hold on to these ancient memories of kindness and conversation.
A second thing we can do is to be humble about our relationship to Jews and Judaism. Politically and socially, Christians carry a lot of privilege in this country. But in our relationship with God, we are the latecomers. The Apostle Paul wrote that we are wild branches grafted into the tree of God’s people. We did not replace the other branches. We were fortunate enough to be added to them.
A third thing we can do is vote. White Christian Nationalism is literally on the ballot in Pennsylvania next month. We have to keep these people as far away from power as possible.
Fourth, and finally, we can show up to support our Jewish siblings next week as they commemorate the lives that were taken four years ago. A gathering is scheduled for Thursday, October 27 at 4pm in Schenley Park on Prospect Drive.
This week, a banner hung from a highway overpass in LA that said, “Kanye is Right about the Jews.” Now someone might say that words are not violence. Or that we shouldn’t take an entertainer seriously. But we’ve seen how words create the conditions for violence. The justification for it. And so we have to push back.
Which brings me back to the difficult teaching from Jesus about the importance of what we allow to grow in our hearts. Contempt in the heart becomes contempt in our words becomes contempt in our actions.
This teaching of Jesus about humility and respect wasn’t directed at Jews in general, or even Pharisees in particular, but to any of his followers who may be acting self-righteous and treating others with contempt.
In other words, he was talking to us.
May the meditations of our hearts and the words of our mouths and the actions of our bodies be acceptable in God’s sight. Amen.