We would do well to pay attention to what happened to Israel while in captivity, lest we repeat their nightmare in our own time. The Israelites should have been more vigilant about what they allowed to rub off on them from their captors. Before their sojourn into Babylon, men and women worshiped together in the temple; afterward they worshiped separately. What rubbed off from Israel’s new neighbors was that women were second-class citizens. They brought this unsavory idea home with them.
The Sabbath was also corrupted. Prior to their captivity, the Sabbath was “a day of delight,” a celebration of the covenant. There was feasting with festive attire accompanied by joyous music and singing. Husbands and wives were encouraged to delight in each other. After the captivity, the Sabbath was reduced to a sad list of prohibitions.
The infectious disease that rubbed off on the Israelites was, in a word, legalism, robbing the Sabbath of its richness and women of their rights. Later the Pharisees brought legalism into full bloom. Their image of God was that of a small-minded bookkeeper whose favor could be earned only by observing an endless set of laws. The result was a religion that enslaved people rather than empowering and setting them free.
Jesus of the Gospels waged an ongoing battle with the Pharisees, not unlike Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. On more than one occasion, Jesus’ words and actions foreshadowed those of William Wallace, “Today, I’m going to pick a fight.” When Jesus allowed his disciples to help themselves in a cornfield on the Sabbath or when he healed on the Sabbath, he picked a fight with the Pharisees, exposing their hypocrisy and just how ridiculous their rules actually were.
Seventeen centuries later, a particularly rigid form of legalism washed ashore in New England. According to the Code of Connecticut, no one was allowed to run, or walk in his garden or elsewhere on the Lord’s Day. No one was allowed to cook meals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair or shave on the Sabbath. Husbands were not allowed kiss their wives nor wives their husbands. Bummer! The Puritans had exceeded the Pharisees.
But let’s not be too hard on the Pharisees, lest we come down hard on ourselves. More often than we would like to admit, a Pharisee can be found skulking around in each of us. Whenever we look down our noses at others, presuming to be better than they are, the Pharisee raises his ugly head. Whenever we trust in our own goodness or draw lines in the sand insisting, “I’m right and you’re wrong!” the Pharisee within wears a thin, smug smile.
What tempts us to drift into self-righteous posturing? Just this: It gives us a sense of security to know we’re the folks carrying the banner for goodness. And that’s just the problem. In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, the Pharisee defined goodness on his own terms and found himself faultless. He was carrying the banner. He judged and condemned others convinced he stood above them. However, the one who pardoned himself was condemned; the one who condemned himself was acquitted.
Because the publican and the Pharisee saw the world very differently, there was no communication between them. That’s the other problem. They needed to listen to each other.
If there is someone (parent, spouse, colleague) or a group of people who stand for things that you detest, are you talking with them? Are you listening to them? Are you trying to understand their point of view? To President Nixon’s credit, he courageously opened communications with China after decades of silence, fear and misunderstanding. It all began with listening.
Followers of Jesus who seek to be obedient are those who listen. As a matter of fact, the word “obedient” comes from the Latin word “audire,” which means “listening.” It all begins with listening. But Pharisees don’t listen because they’re filled with hardened convictions about the way things are. For them, there’s no need for discussion. Case closed.
However, for Jesus, the child was always the exact opposite of the Pharisee. It is the child in us who brings the Kingdom near, who is curious, who seeks clarity. The child always asks questions, probes and above all, listens. A recovering Pharisee initiates a dialogue, not an argument, a discussion, not a tirade, an act of mercy, not condemnation.
If we can begin to listen, maybe we’ll rub off a little grace on each other.