Friday, December 31, 2010

The Hidden Pharisee

These days, if you really want to insult someone, call him a Pharisee. That term seems to be a universal negative, carrying all manner of unpleasant connotations: narrow-mindedness, judgementalism, rigidity of thought, hypocrisy. Nearly every vice most condemned by modern culture is encapsulated in that single term. Someone might be willing to recognize many personal failings and shortcomings, but it would be a person of rare honesty and courage who would acknowledge himself a Pharisee. That would be beyond the pale.

And yet... there was one attribute of the Pharisees that is more common than many would recognize: they didn't like to hear that they were sinners. Of course, nobody likes to hear that he is a sinner, but some people have the self-awareness to recognize that truth about themselves.You see this in the 7th Chapter of Luke's Gospel, where Jesus is speaking about John the Baptist. John's ministry was a simple as it was disturbing: to the people of Israel he announced that their long-awaited Messiah was near, even at the door - but first they needed to purify themselves. The baptism of John drew its roots from the ritual washings of the Mosaic law, which was the final step in resolving ritual uncleanness. John offered his baptism to people who recognized their uncleanness, their unworthiness to receive a Messiah, and to those who accepted it and made the life changes that repentance implied (see Luke 3:8), the promise of cleanliness.

The most surprising people took John up on this offer. As we see in Luke 7:29, folk such as the hated Quisling collaborator tax collectors welcomed John's message and received his baptism. But it's interesting to note who didn't: the Pharisees and experts in the law (7:30). They didn't want to acknowledge that they were sinners who needed cleansing. They thought their behaviour above reproach, in fact, even commendable by God (Luke 18:10-14). Though any one of them might be willing to acknowledge his sins in the generic ("Well, of course, nobody's perfect"), when push came to shove, they didn't want to hear that they were sinners.

Does this remind you of anyone else? Like, perhaps, our entire society? Nobody wants to hear of their own sins. Most people would describe themselves with the phrase, "I'm a good person." Even the lightest hint of accusation of a specific sin typically unleashes a torrent of denial and self-justification. Even the suggestion of things like penitential seasons, or self-accusation, causes all kinds of concern about "being negative" and driving people away with a "Gospel of Gloom".

In this regard we're very Pharisaical. They didn't want to hear they were sinners; neither do we. They broke their arms patting themselves on the back about how assiduously they followed Torah; we spend a lot of time telling each other that we're basically Good People who have nothing to worry about. The Pharisees not only didn't want to hear that they had sins they needed to repent of, they were gravely offended by anyone who suggested any such thing. From what I can see, we suffer from the same problem.

So, perhaps, we're a lot closer to being Pharisees than we wish to believe. After all, if we can harbor one such significant attribute of Phariseeism, what else might mark our lives?


Branwen said...

So true...sadly.

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