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.

A Shared Meal and a Vision for the Future

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

breadandwine2While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples . . . Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. (Mark 14:22-23)

Ritual is defined as “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.” All known human societies include rituals, and these rituals have anthropological functions. They’re a set of activities, symbols, or events that help to shape those who participate in them and assist them in making sense of the world around them, giving order to the chaos, and providing meaning for each participant. In the early Jesus movement, the ritual of a shared meal was at the center of the group’s rituals.

You can find the origins of the shared meal ritual in Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first time the ritual is mentioned is in the first epistle to the Corinthians.

Included in Jesus’ early followers’ shared meal ritual were the symbols of broken bread and spilled wine. I do not believe the early Jesus followers saw this shared meal as an appeasement of an angry god, a way to satisfy some divine demand for retributive justice, or another human sacrifice demanded by the gods. Instead, this ritual was rooted in the Jesus story itself, and it helped them make sense of what had happened to Jesus. It gave order to what had happened. And it bound them together with meaning, purpose, and a vision for their future.

It did this, I believe, in multiple ways. Let’s discuss these one by one.

First, notice how the elements of the shared meal memorialized all of the faithful ones who had been broken and spilled out before them.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels put Jesus’ rejection and execution, and the rejection of execution of his followers in the context of a long list of those who had been rejected and executed in Hebrew history:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?* Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matthew 23:29-36, emphasis added.)

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. (Luke 11:47-50, emphasis added.)

These passages, spoken by a Jew to Jews, later became the root of Christian anti-Semitism, so I want to be especially clear here. The early Jesus community does become increasingly anti-Semitic within the first century, and this trend is reflected in each telling of the Jesus story after Mark: it starts with Matthew and becomes more overt in John. However, I do not believe that Jesus’ rejection and execution are a uniquely Jewish trait. On the contrary, Jesus’ rejection and execution remind us of the strong tendency within all subordinated human cultures to reject nonviolent confrontation and resistance as a viable means of social change, and to seek more violent means in its place.

The Jesus of the Jesus story emerged within first century oppressed Judaism as a prophet of nonviolent social change. As Jesus’ vision for nonviolent social change was rejected, violent militaristic methods took hold that would contribute to the events that lead to the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 C.E. and ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem by its Roman oppressors in 70 C.E.—the “this generation” he referred to. Who rejected Jesus’ method? Not the Jewish people as a whole, but the few, extremely influential, controlling class whose position of privilege in Jewish society at that time Jesus most threatened. These are very real human dynamics taking place within the Jesus story. They are not Jewish in particular. These realities have repeated themselves in all human cultures at various times and places throughout history: there is no excuse for an anti-Semitic interpretation.

I want you to notice that the writers of the gospels did not view Jesus’ execution and death as an isolated, solitary occurrence. Not only were Jesus’ followers to expect their own rejection and execution (see Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; 14:27), but the writers wanted them to see Jesus’ death as the latest in a long line of others whose lives had been broken and spilled out for critiquing the system as Jesus and his early followers did. The “blood of all the prophets from the beginning of the world” Included and preceded Jesus.

As well as being tied to prophetic history, in the Mark’s gospel the shared meal of the early Jesus community was also associated with the Jewish Passover meal of liberation from Egyptian oppression. The Passover ritual gave the Jewish people a way to explain what had happened repeatedly within their history, and it helped them build meaning, purpose, and a vision for the future.

That Jesus would use this Jewish ritual, reframing it for his own nonviolent liberation shows his ingenuity. Jesus came as prophet of social change, announcing liberation of the oppressed through self-affirming, nonviolent enemy transformation. Like the prophets of old, he would be executed by the domination systems he was critiquing. And he would call his followers to be willing to do the same.

The ritual of the shared meal, including broken bread and spilled out wine, therefore is quite appropriate. It was a memorial, first, of all those who had been broken and spilled out in the past by domination systems. It was a time to remember those who had gone before them. It reminded them that they were part of something larger than themselves, that their movement and their Jesus were part of a larger stream whose tributaries stretched back centuries before them.

Their shared meal memorial also centered Jesus, who stood in solidarity with all who have ever been broken and spilled out, and after his death, the ritual also kept his teachings at the center of the movement. It continually reminded them of the one who was broken and “spilled out for many” just as they were to be willing to be (Mark 14:24 cf. Mark 8:34).

This ritual not only helped these early followers to explain what had happened to Jesus, and not only gave them a historical context and meaning, it also helped them to cast a vision for future of human society. This shared meal was a protest, a demonstration that this new Jesus community was to form around a shared meal and shared table in significant contrast to the domination/subordination form of the wider society and of every human societies since. This was a vision of a way of relating that could liberate humanity from everything that hindered and oppressed it! We talked about Jesus the liberator in last week’s e-Sight (link).

This shared table was more than an economic symbol, though. Our new series, A Shared Table, explains that this ritual helped participants to more harmoniously live out the values of egalitarianism or equality, diversity, and basic, human inclusivity. In light of what we learn about the community of Jesus-followers in Acts 2 and 4, we see that it taught its participants to live in a society without domination, one based on the universal truth of the golden rule, sharing, justice, equity, and peacemaking.

The ritual begins within small communities, remembering the names and lives of all those who have gone before, celebrating a vision for what the world can be, and then getting up from the table and choosing to put it into practice. And through these small acts in small communities, the world is “turned upside down” (Acts 17).

HeartGroup Application

I want to encourage each HeartGroup to participate the ritual that Jesus shared with his disciples, the last supper. In the 1st Century, this ritual took the form of a shared meal that included “bread and wine.” The ritual both memorialized Jesus and those in the past whom he was standing in solidarity with, it gave meaning to the ways they too were being broken and spilled out for many, and it set before their imaginations what a world changed by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

This week:

  1. Schedule with your HeartGroup a special time when you can come together and participate in this ritual of a shared meal. Read some more historical background on the shared agape meal.

2. Take time during the meal to read the stories of Jesus’ last supper from each of the four New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Then share the broken bread and spilled wine with each other in whatever way feels comfortable and appropriate for you.

3. Remember and share stories about those in the past who have envisioned and moved humanity closer toward Jesus’ new world. Then spend some time sharing with one another aspects of Jesus’ new world that you are looking forward to. What steps can your HeartGroup take together to move closer toward that new world?

 

In the light of the resurrection event, the shared table ritual gave meaning and purpose to the early Jesus communities. I hope that it will do the same for each of you.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*I have explained that the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of the people rejecting the way of nonviolence. See The Final Eight Prophecies of Jesus Part 1-9.