Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds

out of my sight!

Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

Seek justice,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.

Letting Go of Three Types of Fear

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

sunny road

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

I have recently gone through a paradigm shift in the way I look at Jesus and I believe this shift is significant. In short, Jesus and his message were not outside the economically disadvantaged and subordinated in his society. Jesus’ teachings emerged from within this community. Jesus was not speaking to people whose daily experience he did not share first-hand. Jesus was speaking to and with his own peers. In Howard Thurman’s privately published volume of poems, The Greatest of These, he wrote:

“His days were nurtured in great hostilities

Focused upon his kind, the sons of Israel.

There was no moment in all his years

When he was free.”

Jesus was a poor Jew. He was oppressed on two counts: being from the community of “the poor” and being part of the politically subordinated Jewish people ruled by the Romans, he understood first-hand the implications of his teachings. Although he was a Jewish male within a Jewish patriarchal society, he choose to stand in solidarity with Jewish women (see Matthew 9.22; John 8.10; Luke 15.8; Luke 10.42; Mark 10.11; Mark 15.40), and he also also voluntarily chose a life of solidarity with people who were socially marginalized, including the eunuchs of Matthew 19:12, saying there was room in his new world for them, even though many in his day considered them “unclean.” (Deuteronomy 23.1; Acts 8.36-39; cf. Isaiah 56.3)

It is as one of the “least of these” that Jesus spoke to his peers about the topic we’re looking at this week: the continual war carried out on the nerves of the oppressed people that causes them to live in a perpetual state of fear.

There are three types of fear that we will consider this week:

  1. the fear of going without
  2. the fear of violence
  3. and the fear of isolation, helplessness, and insignificance.

Fear of Going Without

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)

I want to point out here that Jesus was not teaching the economically oppressed to sit back and do nothing. Notice the phrase, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” Jesus was speaking to a people who had precious little: security was one of their chief concerns. Jesus is here inspiring them to risks even their own temporary security to make active advancements toward the new world (“the kingdom”). He was casting a vision in their imagination of a just world (“his righteousness”), and assuring them that if they would pursue a world that is just, safe, and compassionate for all, then in the end result, they would see a world where everyone’s needs would be met.

This passage directly refers to the mentality so many downtrodden people have: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Those in control use present security, even when it is a facade, to dissuade people from questioning or threatening the status quo.

Fear of Violence

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who destroy your external well being but cannot touch your inner well being. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy your entire well being, both your outer as well as your inner wellbeing in Gehenna [(Annihilation of 70 C.E. by following militaristic messiahs)] Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:26-30 (Personal translation.)

Here, Jesus is speaking with those whose internalized fear of their oppressors (the Romans) had driven them to also internalize hatred of the Romans and the wealthy Jewish aristocrats who had “sold out” to complicity with the Empire. The Zealots would have only been at one end of the spectrum of those Jesus is speaking to. All across the spectrum of those disgruntled with the system, there were those who believed they could overthrow Rome by taking up the “sword” like Judah Maccabee during the Maccabean revolt. In Matthew 5.38-41, Jesus offers this audience another way. Jesus foresaw that if his people chose the way of violence toward their violent oppressors, that choice would only end in Rome’s annihilation of the Jewish people. This is exactly what transpired in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 C.E. that climaxed in Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. Jesus offered his peers a force more powerful than violence, a force rooted not in hatred of one’s enemies and a desire to defeat them but in love and a desire to transform them. Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were not passive. They did involve noncooperation in some scenarios and they also included nonviolent direct action, risk, and creative imagination. Both noncooperation and direct action have their appropriate use in nonviolently “seeking” Jesus’ new world (“the kingdom”) and its justice (“righteousness”) for all.

But where all of this must begin is deliverance from fear of those in control of the present “dirty, rotten, system” (Dorothy Day). Jesus is offering a way for us to transcend fear of what others can do to our external realities and be internally immunized against the fear that so often leads to a loss of integrity and an embrace of hatred. This is what Jesus means by destroying one’s body and their “soul” as well. Fear, falsehood, and hate have the power to kill you, internally as well as externally. They produce what I would call a living and enduring hell.

Take a moment and reread the above passage in Matthew 10 with this in mind. We’ll consider Jesus’ words through the works of Thurman in just a moment.

Fear of Isolation, Helplessness, and Insignificance

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”  (Luke 12:32)

The adjective here for “little” is mikros. It refers not just to size but also to one’s dignity. By comparing the oppressed to a flock, Jesus is purposely drawing attention to the way that, like sheep, they have been objectified and dehumanized, and are simply part of someone’s else’s net worth. And by referring to them as little flock, he addresses the dignity they lack even among others who are objectified and dehumanized. Little flocks were worth far less than large flocks. Jesus was speaking to the least among the disadvantaged, the lowest among the community of the low.

And Jesus says, “It is to YOU, the little flock among the flocks, that the Heart of the Universe is pleased to give this new world.” 

These words of assurance are especially for those who are multiply oppressed in the community of the oppressed. (Modern examples of this would be women of color among White feminists, or transgender people in the LGBT community.)

There is something deeply humiliating and foundationally damaging to the self-respect and personal dignity of those who cannot appeal to anyone for protection from their oppressors.

I want to share three passages from Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited that are relevant: I cannot say it better than Thurman did! I’ll simply share his insight here and have only edited Thurman’s words to make them more gender inclusive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person . . . A person’s conviction that they are God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of their relationship with all their fellows. They recognize at once that to fear another person, whatever may be that person’s power over them, is a basic denial of the integrity of their very life. It lifts that mere person to a place of pre-eminence that belongs to God and to God alone. Those who fear are literally delivered to destruction.

“To the child of God, a scale of values becomes available by which people are measured and their true significance determined. Even the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, is recognized for what it is— merely the threat of violence with a death potential. Such a person recognizes that death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death. To deny one’s own integrity of personality in the presence of the human challenge is one of those things . . .

“The core of the analysis of Jesus is that every person is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life process itself. Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God, whose creative activity is expressed even in such details as the hairs of a person’s head, would exclude from God’s concern the life, the vital spirit, of the persons themselves. This idea—that God is mindful of the individual—is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease. In this world the socially disadvantaged person is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: ‘Who am I? What am I?’  The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a person feels that he does not belong in the way in which it is perfectly normal for other people to belong, then they develop a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls an inferiority complex. It is for a person to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.” (Adapted from Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited)

Dr. King spoke on fear and faith this way:

“Now it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job…means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight-year-old child asking a daddy, ‘Why do you have to go to jail so much?’ And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it—bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination.

“And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ because Carlyle was right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: ‘Truth pressed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.’ Yet, that scaffold sways the future. We shall overcome because the bible is right: ‘You shall reap what you sow.’

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!’ With this faith, we’ll sing it as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don’t know about you, I ain’t gonna study war no more.” (Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967)

Jesus’ new world of compassion and justice for all is possible. We must, just like Jesus, not lose faith in humanity. Jesus spoke as one who himself belonged to the community of the oppressed, and his way to this new world begins with the call to abandon fear.

All that might follow begins with this. For as perfect love drives out fear, fear also drives out perfect love. And it is love for all, and only love, that compels us to sit at Jesus’ shared table and opens the way to that world where the Heart of the Universe has become the Heart of us all.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go back and spend some time each day contemplating Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.25-34; Matthew 10.26-30; Luke 12.32.
  2. Journal your thoughts, your questions, your insights, and your breakthroughs as you engage with these passages every day this week.
  3. Share your journal insights with your HeartGroup, your shared table, for discussion and feedback.

Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world for us all: many voices, one shared table, one new world. Wherever this finds you this week, keep letting go of fear, living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.