Do You Read Scripture Like a Pharisee of Like Jesus?

Way back in college, I took a class on the history of religion in America. One day during a discussion about some Christian evangelist, one of the other students offered this criticism of the man’s work: “it’s like he’s actually trying to be like Jesus.” I sat there a bit bug-eyed. Can you imagine – a Christian who was actually trying to be like Jesus? Whatever could that evangelist have been thinking? (Clearly, not everyone I who attended my college was the best or the brightest.) But the reality is that a lot of people – including a good number of Christians – are as unclear on the concept as this young man back in my college days was. How else to explain the fact that many people read the bible the exact same way that the Pharisees did rather than trying to read it like Jesus did? (For anyone who is really unclear on the concept – the Pharisees were Jesus’ main opponents in the gospel stories. We’re supposed to try to be like Jesus, not like the Pharisees. Just so we’re all on the same page here.)

At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were experts on the bible. In fact, they had managed to find all the laws in the bible – 613 of them. They had further figured out that there were 365 negative laws – thou shall nots. And 248 positive laws – thou shalls. So they knew all about important rules like thou shalt wash your hands before eating, thou shalt not perform miracle healings on the Sabbath and how long to keep the fringe on their garments. Somehow they had managed to miss those very important rules about card playing, drinking alcohol and dancing. No one’s perfect, I guess. But they had mastered the very important biblical teaching to avoid the appearance of evil. Like they wouldn’t eat with unclean people because if they did, the other biblical rule followers might call them evil. And evil is bad, donchano? (I once attended a church which demanded that members not drink alcohol on the grounds that other church members might be scandalized if they saw you coming out of a liquor store.)

So long before the teaching of sola scripture, the Pharisees were experts in biblical living. If you needed to know the biblical way to weave your cloth was, they could tell you. (Using only one type of fiber is biblical. The Pharisees would not have stood for our unbiblical polyester/cotton blends!) The Pharisees were also very good about setting a good example for other people – praying in public or announcing their contributions to the synagogue loudly. Because it was important to “witness” to those around them so that people would be inspired to honor God the right way, of course.

In short, the Pharisees read the bible just like any good fundamentalist – with an eye towards rules, order, proper moral conduct and principles which everything else could be shoved into. As I said last week in my post about truth, if this is what you’re looking for in the bible, it’s easy enough to find. And since it all comes from the bible, you can call it “biblical”, thus making it clear that anyone who disagrees or doesn’t fall in line is outside God’s will. And just like modern fundamentalists, they were quite good at patrolling the borders of God’s will to make sure people didn’t unwittingly end up on the wrong side of the pearly gates. After all, who better to explain God’s ways than the people who know his rules,order and principles best?

Well, God made flesh might be able to do a better job. Jesus read the same scripture that the Pharisees did. In fact, nearly everything he said echoed some other Jewish biblical or religious text. And he came away with things like “love your enemies”, “forgive the one who wrongs you 7 times 70 times”, “the first shall be last and the last shall be made first” and “it’s what comes out of a man that makes him unclean”. Same text – completely different answers. Not only that, but Jesus was very critical of the biblicism of the Pharisees calling them white washed tombs. He told them that rather than pointing the way to God, they were keeping men out of the Kingdom of God.

The difference between Jesus’ form of biblical and the Pharisees’ biblical came from the fact that they read the bible looking for two different things. The Pharisees treated the bible like a rule book – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, if you will. Jesus read the bible looking for himself – the God who is love. Both found what they were looking for. Both believed that they were being obedient to God and pointing others to God, but only one was correct. The one who went looking for and found Love.

It would be nice to think that the ways of the Pharisees died out with Jesus’ triumph over death. Rising from the dead would seem to be pretty compelling evidence that he was the one to follow. Especially for people who claim to be following him. But there was a reason that Jesus specifically warned his disciples against allowing the yeast of the Pharisees – it only takes a tiny bit of yeast to leaven bread – and leavened bread is unsuitable for a remembrance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Both the Pharisees and their modern day children read the bible in a way which emphasizes fear. Fear of breaking the rules, of being sullied, of judgment. But as Paul said, “perfect love casts out fear.” If the way you’re reading the bible creates fear, you’re doing it wrong. If you read the bible with an eye towards staying in God’s good graces rather than with an eye towards discovering God’s love, you’re reading the bible like a Pharisee, not like Jesus. It takes courage to reject all the fear-mongers, rule keepers and boundary patrols. There’s always that little niggling fear of “what if they’re right? What if I’m not pleasing God?” If you get in too deep with them, rejecting their way of thinking can invite attacks and shunning. Following Jesus has never been a risk-free endevour, after all.

But if you learn to read the bible the way Jesus did – to discover Love – you will discover a funny thing. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Odds are pretty much 100% that you frequently won’t please God. But when Jesus offers forgiveness – he means it. Seven times seventy he means it. If you’re not pleasing God, it’s not the end of the world – he’s already provided grace for that. Just keep running the race. That’s all he’s asked of us. Not that we keep all the rules straight or keep ourselves unsullied. But just that we run after Love with all we have. That we do the sort of good works which actually do point people to God. That we keep doing it even when it might cost us everything. It’s really just that simple.

So . . . how do you read the bible – like a Pharisee or like Jesus?

Christians have always tended to transform the Christian Revelation into a Christian religion. Christianity is said to be a religion like any other or, conversely, some Christians try to show that it is a better religion than the others. People attempt to take possession of God. Theology claims to explain everything, including the being of God. People tend to transform Christianity into a religion because the Christian faith obviously places people in an extremely uncomfortable position that of freedom guided only by love and all in the context of God’s radical demand that we be holy. –Jacques Ellul

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