Pharisees

When the Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him, his response is not as surprising as it might, at first appear.  Jesus has good reason to be afraid.  Despite being the king of Judea, Herod was widely known as a man of deep insecurity.  He was so convinced that he would be murdered by someone from within his court that he had members of his own family killed for allegedly plotting against him, and developed a network of tunnels from his palaces to ensure that he could escape in the event of an uprising.  Herod had already killed John the Baptist, who he beheaded and served on a platter at a dinner party, at the request of his daughter; and John had made clear that he was only the messenger of the one who was yet to come.  Jesus knew that his disciples declared him to be the one of whom John had spoken, they had declared that he was the Christ.  So he was a natural enemy and target for the king.

Last week we pondered together the uncertainty of Jesus’ disciples as they journeyed towards Jerusalem, not knowing what the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate would do to Jesus and to them when they arrived.  Today that pondering is mirrored as Jesus is warned that Herod, the Jewish puppet king wants to kill him.  But Jesus’ response to the warning about the threat of his own death at the hands of Herod reflects either his divine knowledge or his intuition of what is to come.  In our Gospel reading he names Herod for what he really is: not a great lion of Judea – like the descendants of Judah preferred to be called – but a sly fox, a creature of cunning yes, but not of power.  Instead of fear concerning Herod, Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, weeps for Jerusalem.   He weeps for the religious centre of power – and of course we know that he was right to do so.

Later in Luke’s account of the good news of the life of Jesus, Jesus does come face to face with Herod.  He is sent to him by Pilate, because as a Galilean he falls under Herod’s jurisdiction.  But instead of sentencing him to death, Herod questions him and returns him to Pilate dressed in fine clothes.  So Jesus seems to have worked out now, what he will later find out, (and which the writers of the Gospel already knew by the time that they came to bring the text together) that Herod was not the one to be afraid of.  As I have been reflecting on this Gospel-encounter over the last few days it has struck me how strange it is that the Pharisees are the ones who go to warn Jesus at all.

We tend to give the Pharisees a pretty bad press in the life of the Church, because as we read about them in the Gospels the over-riding feeling that we get about them is that they are the enemies of God.  Jesus is always in dialogue with them, always needing to respond to their questions and objections, and what he has to say to them is normally a challenge for them about how they live.   “Don’t pray like the Pharisees pray,” he says, “don’t fast like the Pharisees do, so that everyone can see you…”  Yet the more that we delve into the lives and motivations of the Pharisees, using the evidence available to us from outside of the Bible, the more we find that they were actually fairly exciting people to be around.  They were the reformers of the day.  All around them they could see that their fellow Jews were stagnating at best, and at worst were slowly being pulled away from their religious customs as they began to take on instead the values and understandings of the non-Jews who lived around them.  In their own context it is the Pharisees who are trying as best as they can to bring people back into a faithful way of living according to the law of God.   In the midst of the decline in religion that they can see around them, it is the Pharisees who embody the renewal movement of their day, calling people back to God, and back to the observance of the religious traditions.  It is precisely because they are so radically interested in encouraging people to follow God that on the one hand they have so many questions for Jesus, and on the other hand why it is that Jesus spends so much time in dialogue with them.

The more that I have come to understand the world-view of the Pharisees the more akin, I think, they are to us in the Church today.  We share with the Pharisees similar concerns in a very different context.   Are we not, like them, concerned about why our children seem to have given up on faith?  Are we not, like them, concerned about how our religious institutions can be reformed, and renewed and revived in order to ensure that they are fit for purpose for the next generation?  The concerns that we have today, about how the next generation of people living in East Maitland will hear about the good news of Jesus which has so nourished each one of our lives, are very similar to the concerns that the Pharisees had about how their worship of God and adherence to his laws would continue in their situation.  But, in the end, these Pharisees who warn Jesus about the threat of Herod in today’s Gospel reading, are from the very movement of people who will ultimately engineer his death.

Saint Paul in his letter to the Church in Corinth outlines for us, as we have just heard, the wonderful salvation history of the Jewish people.  He re-tells the Jewish story of God at work with them, pointing forwards to Christ.   But Jesus knows as he looks down on Jerusalem that the custodians of the Jewish tradition will not be willing to hear what he has to say when he arrives there.  His journey to Jerusalem, will be a journey to the cross.   Of all of the realities that we find in the life of Jesus, the most painful I think, is the fact that it is in the end religious people who are striving to be faithful to God who are responsible for nailing him to the cross.  As I have been reflecting on that fact over the last few days, as I continue on my own Lenten journey, that has caused me to ask some questions of myself.   When do I hold so tightly to my own understandings about God that I am blind to what I can learn from others?  When am I so caught in my own perspectives about how things should be done in the life of the Church that I am unable to see that God is doing a new thing right under my nose?  The problem with the Pharisees is not their lack of faith in God, or their commitment to reviving their tradition, it is their blindness to the possibility that, in Jesus, God is doing something new.

In all of this, I remember reading the painful reflections of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, after his first year in office, in which he noted that one of the most troubling and hurtful phenomenon for him, had been the enormous amount of personal hate mail that he had received from Christians (Anglicans) in his own Church who were upset with decisions that he had taken as the Archbishop.   That mail was reported to have included death threats, threats to his children’s lives, and personal slurs on his own character and integrity on such a scale that they would be difficult for any human being, even an Archbishop to take.  And yet they were made, not by Muslim extremists, but by fellow Anglicans who didn’t like the way that he was doing things.

When the first openly gay bishop was consecrated in the Episcopal Church in America both the Presiding Bishop and the man who was being consecrated bishop wore bullet proof vests under their liturgical dress because of similar threats on their own lives.  And in the Diocese of Perth, in Western Australia, bomb threats were made against the Cathedral in order to try to stop the ordination of the first women as priests there  back in the 1990s.  The point about each of these examples is that the people doing the threatening were not Muslim extremists, they were members of our own Anglican Communion, committed presumably, personally, to the life of the Church in the same way that we are.  Christian people and Christian institutions can fail so easily to live by the good news of Jesus which is at their heart.  There is always the potential that we can become so caught up with our own agendas – either to ensure that things stay the way that they currently are, or equally that they change – that we find it hard to hear the voices of others.  I am very aware that I can become so entangled in what I believe to be right, and what I understand as the “only” way of doing things, that its possible that I can become unable to engage with people who do things differently.

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem in our Gospel reading today because although it is the very symbol of religiosity, the centre of religious movements, the home of the great Temple that symbolises the very presence of God in the world for the people of that time – he knows that despite all of these things, or perhaps because of them, those religious people who inhabit Jerusalem, and who lead it, will be unwilling to hear the message which he brings.  They are already so pre-occupied with the business of following God that they are unable to hear the voice of God in God’s own son.  The words of Isaiah which we heard earlier ring out to us all, “seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”  The death which is to come for Jesus, although it is at the hands of the Romans, will be demanded not by the Romans, nor by King Herod, but by the religious leaders of Jerusalem – those who are charged with discerning God’s will on earth.  The more time that I have spent reflecting on that fact over the last week, the greater the challenge that it has become for me.

As Jesus looks at me does he weep like he weeps for Jerusalem?   Am I, like those Pharisees, so sure about what God is like, and what God wants that I am unable to hear the voice of Jesus afresh today?  I don’t pretend that that is not a hard question for me to ask of myself, and therefore I presume for you to ask of yourselves.  The Jews in Jerusalem were sure about how God would come to them.  So sure that they were so busy, so busy that when God came in Jesus they were unable to recognise him.  In all that we do let’s have the zeal of the Pharisees who so wanted people in their time to return to God.   But let’s not make their mistake of being unable to see God at work in new ways amongst us.