Tag Archives: Pharisee

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

There are a lot of reasons to ask questions. If you are in school, and your teacher says, “Do you have any questions?” then you ought to speak up and say, “I don’t understand. Why do you call feel an intransitive verb?” If you want to meet a friend for lunch, it would be fine to ask, “Is Sweet Tomatoes on the right or the left side of the street if I am coming from work?” It might even be good if you are thirteen to ask you mother, “What do they mean when they say ‘go all the way?’” Sometimes people ask questions because they actually want answers.

Sometimes they don’t. Want answers, that is.

The book of Mark is a barebones gospel that wastes no details as it almost flings Jesus into ancient Galilee with his startling message: “The kingdom of God has come near.” This good news resonated with a lot of people who were looking for improvement in their lives. If God’s kingdom was emerging on earth, they wanted in on that thrilling development.

The religious leaders in Galilee and Judea were quite apprehensive about the meaning of such an announcement. They certainly looked forward to the Messiah promised by the ancient prophets, but some common laborer from Nazareth didn’t look much like a Messiah to them. They lurked in the crowds that mobbed Jesus wherever he went, and each time Jesus made a point with the people, some Pharisee or scribe or representative of the high priest asked a question.

They were really simple questions.

  • Jesus looked at a paralytic who wanted to walk, and before he said anything else, he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” A Pharisee popped up and asked, “Why does he presume to forgive sins?
  • Jesus went to dinner with his new disciple Matthew, popularly known as Levi. Matthew invited his professional colleagues, other tax collectors and an assortment of people commonly classified by Jewish law as ‘sinners.’ Some Pharisee hanging around in the crowd outside asked, “Why does this fake rabbi dare to eat with such people – tax collectors and sinners? 
  • When Jewish religious leaders in Galilee and Judea fasted, they made sure everybody knew it by dressing and acting in ways designed to signal how they were suffering in obedience to God. They soon thought they had figured out that Jesus’ disciples were not fasting. One of the Pharisees buttonholed Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast?” 
  • Jesus went into a synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. Jesus looked at the man and right away, he knew that the Pharisees were looking at him. Before he healed the man, he reflected the question he knew they would ask. He asked, “Is it okay to do good on the Sabbath?” 
  • As Jesus and the disciples were strolling somewhere on a Sabbath day, the disciples plucked some ripe grain, rubbed the husk off in their hands, and ate it. The Pharisees, who presumably had already concluded that the walk was not longer than a Sabbath day’s journey, seized the moment to ask, “Why are your disciples harvesting on the Sabbath?” 
  • On another Sabbath, Jesus was invited to read and speak in the synagogue in Nazareth. The scene sounds like “home town boy makes good” and they probably expected to hear a speech much like we might hear from a freshman home from college who is invited to speak on the subject, “How my home church helps me succeed in life.” Jesus gave a very different speech, and they all muttered, “Who does he think he is? Where did he get all this?” One day, the Pharisees n
  • oticed that Jesus’ disciples were eating something without washing their hands first. Funny they didn’t comment about that when the disciples were plucking grain out of a field, but it didn’t come up at that time. On this occasion, however, they were pained to observe such disrespect for the traditions. One of them had to ask, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?”

 The interesting thing about these questions is that they could all be answered the same way Jesus answered the last one. His answer was that our lives are not measured by the externals, but rather by the internals. His entire response to this question addressed the myriad of issues the Pharisees wanted him to attend to, because he and his disciples did not put on a mask of religiosity. Jesus healed the paralytic by attending to the internals first. Jesus chose to associate with people without judging their externals. Jesus didn’t teach his disciples to give external signals when they were fasting, so nobody knew whether they were fasting or not. He didn’t think God would be dishonored by the fact that somebody observed a healing on the Sabbath. Jesus wasn’t willing to fret over external appearances that might lead somebody to think the disciples were working on the Sabbath. Jesus didn’t give his home town a “feel-good” message instead of the truth he came to preach. Jesus didn’t worry about exaggerated respect for traditions that expressed total disregard for God. Every time the Pharisees challenged Jesus, they demonstrated in one way or another that their point was to take the emphasis off the arrival of the kingdom of God and put the emphasis on things they could see and control.

The questions of the Pharisees were not designed to get any new information. Their questions were designed to change the subject away from the arrival of the kingdom of God and turn the subject to the things they controlled.

 A lot of us do that. We face Jesus and he rocks our world. We depend on the things we can see to define our reality. The guilty feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness that wells up when we see Jesus makes us think we need to fix our own externals. We think that if we could just say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, that ought to fix things. If we could just stop telling even little lies, maybe that would be the ticket. If we could just get to church every Sunday morning, maybe God would be happy with us. We keep asking the question, Will this be good enough? But our question is changing the subject from what God wants to do because he loves us to what we do to get God to love us.

The good news is that we don’t have to do any of those external things in order for God to love us and calm all those disturbing internal storms. God loves us, just as he loved the crusty, hidebound Pharisees who kept trying to change the subject. In Christ, God shakes up our internals, and like Nicodemus, we may creep around in secret trying to figure out why Jesus makes us feel so uneasy. In Christ, God reassures us that he loves us. On the cross, our shameful internals are washed away by the shed blood of Christ. Each time we receive the Lord’s Supper, we remember that Christ promised to heal what is wrong with us by giving his own body and blood for us. We receive an external gift and internalize the gift that is in, with and under the elements, remembering the Christ whose love heals and transforms. Like every human being, we continue to live in the tension of our internal/external dialogue. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit who battles for us against the evil internals that defile us.

When Nicodemus Met God, the Mysterious Three in One

Holy Trinity by Fridolin Leiber (1853–1912)

Sunday Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8     Psalm 29     Romans 8:12-17     John 3:1-17

Every Christian has heard the phrase, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” many times. We hear it every Sunday during worship, often more than once. We mention all three persons when we confess our faith in the Creed. Prayers often close with a reference to all three persons, sometimes rather lengthy. The pastoral blessing at the end of the Eucharist always names all three persons. We hear it at a baptism. We hear texts with reference to the three persons in more abstruse terms. We all know that God is the Mysterious Three in One, one God in three persons, but we all struggle if anyone asks for an explanation.

This phrase was not familiar to Nicodemus who, as a Pharisee, was well acquainted with the texts we call the Old Testament. He was more accustomed to think of God in terms of the most important words to Israelites: Hear O Israel. The Lord our God is one God. When Jesus began to speak of being born from above, Nicodemus was not prepared to understand what he meant. Jesus actually introduced Nicodemus to all the elements of the Trinity. That concept is not likely the message he took home with him, yet Jesus had to talk about all three persons for his message to make any sense. He pointed out that a person must be born of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. He talked about himself, saying that he had come down from heaven, where the Father lives eternally, the same Father who spoke at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son.” He summed up his teaching in probably the most famous words in the Bible, saying that God, who exists in three persons, loved the world so much that the Father sent the Son into the world to save the world. Faith in the Christ the Son is the work of the Spirit, by whose grace and power people are born into the Kingdom of God.

The whole idea of God who is one existing in Three Persons without being divided – it overwhelms human brain capacity and human language. Mohammed couldn’t accept it, and he created the religion of Islam for that very reason. His inability to accept the Trinity as an article of faith led him down a different road. Mormons, on the other hand, seem to acknowledge many gods, even though they focus on God the Father, and they ascribe no divinity to Jesus. They cannot accept One God in Three Persons, either. During two thousand years of Christian history, Christians have felt that they needed to explain this mystery, and this need has led to numerous heresies.

The simple truth is that we cannot explain the Trinity. We can only accept it. It is a mystery. God, infinite and eternal, is already beyond our comprehension. The Trinity is simply another mysterious truth about God. We confess faithfully that it is, but we also confess that we have no idea how it can be so.

The Book of Concord touches on the mystery, summing it up as the message of the gospel. It is the Father’s perfect plan that the Holy Spirit creates true faith in our hearts that we may come to Christ, our Redeemer. The gospel only makes sense if the Trinity is truth, and the Trinity comes clear to the eyes of our hearts in the gospel, even though our minds of flesh are still mystified. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus introduces Nicodemus to the mysterious Three in One, and when John sat down to write about Jesus, he thought this conversation was important enough that it needed to  be preserved,  even though the whole world could not contain everything he might have written about Christ. When we hear this story, we listen as Nicodemus listened, and Christ opens our minds and hearts to the truth of the gospel and the mystery of the Trinity.

Why does it matter? Because God himself, mysterious Three in One, ordained that faith in Christ the Son is the gift of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God the Father. This is the faith we hold dear and confess each Sunday in the Creed.

What difference did it make to Nicodemus? When Joseph of Arimathea took possession of the body of Jesus and laid it lovingly in his own tomb, Nicodemus brought costly spices for wrapping the body. The Trinity made a huge difference to Nicodemus. What difference does it make to you?

© 2012 Katherine Harms

The Real Miracle of Pentecost

Readings for Sunday, May 27, 2012 

Acts 2:1-21     Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27     John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pentecoststory is a miracle of flash and fury. Who wouldn’t be impressed! Roaring wind. Flaming tongues. Miraculous translations of the apostles’ words. People who only two months before had screamed “Crucify him!” were convicted and transformed. Thousands of people receiving Christ and joining the tiny group of about 120 people who had spent the previous weeks mostly in hiding. It was astounding and overwhelming.  All that excitement could have been the beginning and the end. Many is the community that has been caught up in the excitement of a flashy personality and good showmanship for a few days, only to see the excitement dwindle and the “profound changes” wither into dreary sameness after the show folded up and left town. If the miracle of Pentecost had become a faint memory and an annual celebration where the church gathered to remember the fire and bemoan the ashes it had left behind, Pentecost would be nothing. 

The real miracle of Pentecost is not simply that it happened. The real miracle is that it did not die away. Many people were sure it would do that. After Pentecost, the uproar percolated throughout Jerusalem as the original group of 120 and the thousands who came to faith at Pentecost simply refused to shut up. It was a problem for the priests and other Jewish religious leaders who had expected the Jesus problem to go away after he was crucified. They discussed the problem, they tried arresting the pesky Galileans, and they gave orders that the name of Jesus was not to be mentioned. Nothing worked. In one of their meetings, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a famous teacher in Jerusalem, tried to calm things down by reminding everyone that they had dealt with upstarts before, and those upstarts were hardly remembered any more. Then he said something important, something that must have come back to haunt him over and over after one of his own pupils became caught up in the frenzy. Gamaliel said to the assembled Jewish leadership team, “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God.”  

This wise advice was ignored. The attempts to shut the disciples’ mouths continued, and those attempts were completely unsuccessful. Like hundreds and thousands of flaming sparks they flew around Jerusalem striking up fires wherever they went. The book of Acts records that their numbers increased daily. Yet the effort to contain and squelch this fire continued. Dismay became rage, and rage became fury, and the fury propelled a hail of stones against the yielding flesh of one of the deacons of that early church. His flesh yielded, but his spirit stood firm, and Gamaliel’s student Saul stood watching, protecting the cloaks of the attackers from becoming blood-spattered as he watched the insolent deacon Stephen die. Gamaliel’s student Saul, according to the book of Acts, approved of the whole proceeding. He and all those who participated in the execution obviously believed that the fire roaring around Jerusalem was not of God, and they believed that God approved of their work on his behalf. 

Gamaliel’s student would be the most obvious evidence that Gamaliel had it right. Saul had studied to be a Pharisee at the feet of Gamaliel, as he would later testify, yet he paid no attention to Gamaliel’s warning, either. He joined enthusiastically in the persecution that followed Stephen’s death. Saul worked hard in Jerusalem to shut down the upstart Galilean cult, and when he learned that cult members who fled the persecution in Jerusalem had set up shop in other places, he went to the high priest and obtained documents authorizing him to act as a temple policeman in Damascus. Saul departed Jerusalem in high dudgeon that a bunch of ragtag fishermen had presumed to assault the ancient faith of the children of Israel. On the road to Damascus he discovered that his teacher had been right all along.  

Nearing Damascus, Saul was virtually struck by lightning. A bright light blinded him. A voice spoke. The voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Gamaliel was right. Those who persecuted the movement were served notice right then and there that they were fighting against God. In the person of Saul, everyone was destined to discover that persecuting Christ’s followers was absolutely fighting against God. In fact when God sent someone to help Saul understand what had happened, God’s message was, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Saul, who became famous under his Roman name Paul, suffered a great deal for the sake of Christ, and he is the best known example of the fact that the flaming tongues of Pentecost did not burn out and crumble into a heap of ashes. 

Paul is only one of the miracles of Pentecost. There was Peter preaching to a Roman centurion. Philip preaching to an Ethiopian official. Barnabas and Mark, the second missionary team in Asia Minor. There were all those visitors to Jerusalem who went back home with the message of Christ. The Farsi church in Persia. The Coptic Church in Egypt. On the day Jesus ascended to heaven, he had told his followers, “You will be witnesses …to the ends of the earth,” and they were.  

That is the real miracle. There are few places in the world today where the name of Christ has not yet been proclaimed. If the Pentecost flame had been mere pyrotechnics that died away and became only a dim memory of temporary excitement, the death and resurrection of Christ would have become known as a myth no more significant than the events that were the basis for the Bhagavad Gita. The flame did not die out. The flame is still burning bright in the hearts of people to the ends of the earth, as Jesus foretold. In fifty countries there are governments that still fight against God. In all countries there are cultural pressures that attempt to quench the flame, but it simply refuses to die away. 

It never will die away. Along the way, there have been a few instances when individuals failed to carry their light anywhere, but that has not stopped God’s flame. The flaming tongues of Pentecost are still afire and still completely oxidizing the power of evil in people’s lives. The flame of Christ’s love still envelopes people like the bright light that transfixed Saul on the road to Damascus. The flame burns brightly today, and we can count on it to continue into the future. When the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation he was given a vision of our reason for hope in every age, a vision that when time and space come to a bitter end, the flames of Pentecost will still be burning bright in an eternal and infinite light-filled world.  

The real miracle of Pentecost is expressed in every person today who claims the name of Christ. May each of us be faithful to burn brightly and to pass the flame along to everyone we meet.


Taxing Citizens to Feed the Poor is not Christ’s Way

Source: Joshua Sherurcij
Source: Joshua Sherurcij (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I promised to explain why taxing the nation heavily in order for the government to provide social services is not a good idea. I have already explained that it is not what Jesus taught. I observe that many churches and religious leaders try to edit Biblical teachings to make them say that God wants the government to do this sort of thing, but when I read the Bible and look for the plain meaning of the words, that is not the message I find.There is a very important reason that government is a poor choice to hand out social services. The reason is overhead. If people compared the accountability for good stewardship of government money to the way charitable foundations use their money, nobody would want to give the government any money at all. Every government project is top-heavy with administrative costs. I have always admired charities like the Heifer Project and Lutheran World Relief, because more than 90% of the money these charities receive actually goes to the services they provide. The people who run these charities do not receive lavish paychecks and benefits. They don’t spend fortunes on buildings and grounds. They believe that when somebody gives them a dollar, the donor wants to help feed the hungry and heal the sick. These charities demonstrate that it is possible to pay administrators and house the offices while still funneling the lion’s share of their revenues to people in need.

The government feels no such compunction. Civil service employees are paid on a scale most private citizens would envy, and their benefits are equally impressive. The pay and benefits are distributed according to paygrades that are consistent across the spectrum of all civil service work, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but it does mean that the mantra that government work should pay better than private work is enforced even in charitable endeavors. It is not my purpose to argue about how much a government employee should be paid. My purpose is to point out that when you give a dollar to a private charity, people who need the charitable services receive a lot more of that dollar than they receive when you give a tax dollar to the government.

A need to regulate further complicates and hampers charitable work. If I give money to a homeless person who solicits me outside the grocery store, I risk my money on a bet that the person is genuinely homeless and in need. I do it because Jesus taught me to take that risk. However, the government cannot and must not do that, due to the nature of government. If the government simply gives money to every person who shows up to ask for it, then we all are rightly outraged, because there are too many people who will ask for that money when they don’t need it. If I lose twenty dollars by giving it to a charlatan at the grocery store, that is no tragedy, and God can sort that problem out at his own perfect time. If the government loses thousands by paying unemployment benefits to a lottery winner, we all think that both parties to that transaction need to be punished, and there ought to be a law to prevent this from ever happening again.

The solution is for Congress to pass a law. We all know that few laws are ever about just one thing, and this means weeks and months of wrangling and negotiations in order to word the law or attach the amendment to some other law or attach amendment to this perfect law, and so forth. Having passed the law, the government program administrators must then write regulations to define how the law will be administered. Every form used by the program must be reviewed in order to assure that they collect the information required in a manner compliant with a lot of other laws and regulations about confidential information. Every employee must be retrained to interview, evaluate, report and approve or deny clients based on the new regulations. The new law may even direct the program to appoint a new officer, who will need new staff, which must be housed in new offices which need new furniture, and so it goes.

To tell the truth, nothing government does is ever done efficiently by the standards of common sense. Most citizens claim to want the government to use some common sense, but if the government did not write voluminous regulations and create voluminous forms, the government would not begin to be as acccountable as we all wish it were. Sadly, even with all the laws and regulations and forms and audits, government is still a high maintenance entity.

The other big reason government is not a good administrator of social services is that government is not kind. Government operates according to the law. When we think about the fact that none of us can live up to God’s law, and when we think of what the Pharisees did in an attempt to make it possible for people to do it, then we begin to see why government cannot be charitable. Government is more like the Pharisees than it is like Jesus. Government laws used to give a “dole” to families in need. When it became apparent that many families included a healthy man who refused to work, government responded by saying no “dole” would be given if a husband/father lived in the home. The men targeted by this law were supposed to be motivated to get busy and get a job and take care of their families. The law, however, did nothing to provide that motivation. Laws do not motivate; laws regulate and irritate. No law can ever be a loving solution to problems inherent in human nature. The outcome of the law was not a rush to gainful employment by the targeted husbands and fathers. Instead, husbands/fathers abandoned families in order to make them eligible for a charitable “dole.” Federal Pharisees initiated the breakup of families, not the death of poverty. Poverty continued to thrive.

Government must have laws and regulations and policies, and it must administer in compliance with all those laws and regulations and policies. Government cannot operate on the standards of common sense, and it absolutely cannot be charitable. Every applicant for government services must be demonstrated to be eligible, and there can be no fudging over a penny too much or a man who can’t find work or any other little thing that charitable hearts could deal with.

Charity in the name of Jesus is certainly admonished to be wise as a serpent, but charity in the name of Jesus can also be harmless and actually charitable. Common sense, grace and love drive charity in the name of Jesus, not regulations, policies, and a hierarchy of administration from here to next year. We who claim the name of Christ commit to follow him and be like him. Christ is the one who healed ten lepers without asking them any questions or filling out any forms. Only one ever thanked him. Over and over as Christ healed crowds of people, he showed us that we are to serve and love our neighbors without creating administrative barriers that demean them. We are called by Christ to serve and love our neighbors and to build up our neighbors. Government simply cannot do that. If we are serious about helping people in poverty, we must be willing to risk helping a charlatan now and then. Never forget that Jesus loves people who are behaving badly just as much as he loves the innocent victims of poverty. In the name of Christ we can and must accept the risk of helping an unworthy person as an act of love and service. The government cannot do that, because that is not the mission of government. The government will never be the visible kingdom of God on earth.


Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic
Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

The teachings of Jesus are all about love. In fact, when we read those teachings closely, we discover that the teachings of Jesus are about transformation. When we get close to Jesus and spend time listening to him, we open ourselves to become different. When the Holy Spirit dwells within a person, that person simply cannot continue to be like everyone else.

Today’s daily news is filled with rhetoric about the way people relate to each other. If I read only the specific spoken words, I would conclude that all the people involved are trying very hard to get along with each other. Each party to the conflict simply feels the need to point out some little failing in the words the other person is using. Simply using better words would clear everything up in a flash.


Politically correct language is not about loving anyone. The rules for speaking politically correct language do not transform anybody, and abiding by those rules will not produce a culture where people love or even respect one another. The best possible outcome from mandating correct speech is tolerance. If you have ever dealt with a sibling you could barely tolerate, you could testify to the fact that tolerance is not love.

Still, the secular culture of our day holds the usage of correct speech in high regard. The level of regard is expressed by those who not only watch what specific approved or disapproved words are spoken, but they also peer beyond the specific words and recognize when otherwise innocuous words have become code for forbidden words. I don’t need to elaborate on this image. You hear it every day from commentators and politicians and the spokespersons for politicians.

The problem with policing speech is that while people can be legislated to use or to avoid specific words with some degree of success, there is no corresponding success in changing attitudes. The underlying problems remain, and the problems are not all in the hearts of those who use what is considered to be offensive speech. For every person who expresses a heart illness that is manifest in speech that assaults someone, there is someone who cannot forgive some past offense, and that person is on high alert to find the slightest remnant or suggestion that the offense is approved by any speaker. Someone who takes offense at people who have done nothing to offend, finding hate speech and code words everywhere, has a serious problem with the inability to forgive. The mechanism of managing verbiage can never heal an unforgiving heart. That heart must be transformed by love, and that kind of change can only be made by the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to achieve transformation of the culture by policing the speech of the people.

It is hard to imagine how such behavior arose in a nation whose regard for the freedom of speech given to every human being by God himself at the moment of creation is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. As often happens, it arose in response to very real wrongdoing, but effects of the perpetration of evil have been exacerbated by the effects of the inability of people to forgive, even when the old wrong no longer even exists. This problem mirrors the behavior of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, and when we look at what Jesus thought about the Pharisees, we can see clearly why political correctness will never have the desired effect. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for washing the outside of a cup and ignoring the garbage inside. He accused the Pharisees of being like mausoleums – ornate and beautiful on the outside, despite being full of rotting corpses and the bones of the dead.

The solution to a culture where people actually do get along, where people respect one another and even love one another, is not political correctness. The solution is in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said that love is the greatest commandment of all. We should love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves. He said that even if a neighbor became an enemy, we should love that neighbor anyway, and even pray for that neighbor. Furthermore, if that neighbor needed anything from us, Jesus said we should give it. We should not withhold ourselves or anything we have from that enemy neighbor while it lies in our power to make the situation better. When people are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to live the law of love, then this culture will be transformed as well.

When I point out that political correctness will not solve attitude problems, I do not suggest that we should all abandon good manners and polite consideration for others in our words. I simply mean that good police work never ends crime. Criticizing or even punishing people for unacceptable speech does not really do anything for the issue that lies beneath the words. There is only one way to transform the human heart. That heart must be open to the Holy Spirit.

How does this work?

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17