The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Parish Eucharist      29th October 2017
Pharisees and scripture.
Andrew Penny

Pharisees and scripture.
Are you as baffled as I am by the strange logic Jesus uses in his debates with the Pharisees, and last week with the Sadducees?
The Sadducees, you will recall, did not, believe in the after-life or resurrection, and were trounced by Jesus quoting Exodus, where God is called “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” which apparently demonstrated that God was the god of the living not the dead. It reminds me more of unreconstructed history; the story of dead, white, men. I don’t find the idea of a god of patriarchs long in their graves terribly encouraging.
That was last week and I am trespassing, but it does set the context for this week’s equally odd encounter with the Pharisees.
First, there is Jesus summary of the law, that we should love God and then our neighbours as ourselves. I will come back to this, but my point now is that it’s not at all original and scarcely astounding. It’s a combination of another Exodus quote and one from the passage from Leviticus which we just heard. It was a commonplace; why should it surprise and silence the Pharisees, unless by demonstrating the conservatism of Jesus’ gospel? That is perhaps the point; for all its radical appearance Jesus wasn’t perhaps claiming to say anything fundamentally new. He was fulfilling the Law, not changing it.
Then comes Jesus’ own strange question about the Messiah’s paternity. We can see that this was pressing question, as however Jesus saw himself, and whatever he meant by being “the Messiah”, his identity puzzled others. To have been able to place him as someone’s “son” would be mentally comforting.
The conventional wisdom was that the Messiah would be a son of David, but another quote seems to demonstrate that this could hardly be, as the son, the argument goes, cannot be greater than the father. This is, of course, hopelessly illogically by the light of our logic; there is an obvious failure to take account of the ambiguity in the title “Lord” which might mean someone more powerful than the speaker- a king or ruler; or simply be a term of respect. Equally “Son” means on the one hand, biological child, but also something much looser suggesting a relationship which is the source of power and inspiration. Jesus’ logic is perhaps intended to mean that he as the son of God can yet be equal to and indeed identified with God. If that is the argument, it’s understandable that it should baffle, but hardly that it should silence, the Pharisees.
The gospel writers were of course much exercised, by just who Jesus was and how he was, or was related to, God, but this exchange leaves us as puzzled as ever. And I sometimes think, worse than puzzled; I am left with a suspicion that if this is the sort of logic needed to interpret the Scriptures, what chance do we have of doing so?
Why were these strange incidents recorded? When it came to choosing which stories about Jesus to include, why was this chosen? One answer would be that while the gospel writers were concerned about who Jesus was, they were also keen to say who he was not; not, for example, John the Baptist (or a follower of John’s party), nor a Sadducee, nor a Pharisee; Jesus was something new and different and importantly for the Early Church as it drifted away from Judaism, Jesus’ message both his teaching in words and the message of his actions, should be seen not to be entirely rooted in Jewish tradition. Or rather, if rooted in that tradition, yet growing into something different and new. Drawing inspiration from it and transforming it.
It’s in this that perhaps these stories have something to tell us. Jesus takes scripture and with a certain amount of knocking about and imagination draws contemporary sense –contemporary that is to him and his audience (even if it’s not all that clear to us).
I suggest we might or, should, share a similar approach to scripture, and our own Christian tradition. We look to the Gospels and to the teaching of the Church over the ages for guidance and instruction, but are sometimes tempted to treat them as a rule book, providing strict but comfortingly familiar guidance and instruction, which is preferable to the more alarming narrative of our daily experience, and the strain on what we thought were our well-tuned and rigid moral compasses. The fear of disorientation makes us long for a clearly marked and well-trodden path. The trouble is that on closer inspection the path often doesn’t seem to going through the wood that we find ourselves in.
On the other hand, we are also attracted by the new, the different and the unknown around us. And, equally, we want to be eclectic about the past especially as we learn more about it and see the diversity and strangeness of traditions we thought we understood and new ones which we didn’t even know existed. The early Christians may have felt something similar as their world was upturned.
Like those early Christians, we may derive some comfort and inspiration from these seemingly strange stories about Jesus. He seems willing to question and re-interpret even the most sacred scripture, even if he does so with a logic obscure to us.   And crucially he is doing so, as I have suggested, in a context which seeks to define what Christianity is and is not.
The radical rethinking is not, however, a free for all. We see this most clearly in the un-astonishing insistence on the traditional essence of the law; loving God and our neighbour is what it is about. That leaves much to be debated, but we know that we are on the wrong course if we cannot say that what we propose expresses in some way, our love of God and realises our love for our neighbour.
That’s the rationale and the theory; for the practice, I think we need to turn to St Paul, not a man known for his accommodating ethics or easy going ways, but one motivated in imitation of his master, by such a deep care for his neighbours, such as the Thessalonians that he was determined to share with them not only the gospel but his own self, because they were very dear to him. He is, of course, echoing Jesus’ own sacrifice, and it’s also the example for us. With that sort of emotional grounding the love of God and our neighbours will always shine through our struggles to understand, reinterpret and bring scripture to life. Amen

Print This Page

Sermons from previous years | 2017 |2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005