By Dcn. Eric Whitehair on the Second Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name ✠ of the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a lot going on in this very short Gospel reading today. A lot below the scenes. So I’d like to begin by introducing the cast, as it were. One of the most, interesting might be the wrong word, one of the most important but barely mentioned characters in this portion, which will have a giant impact later in the Gospel, are the Herodians, that is, people who were supporters of Herod. Know something about Herod, he was the ruler of Judea, the Roman province. He set himself up as a king, but he was not king of Israel. He was not actually even from Israel. He paid a certain amount of lip service, a certain amount of public respect to the Hebrew people. He even rebuilt the Temple, and it’s really hard to underestimate how important the Temple was to the spiritual life of the people of Israel. It was literally, literally, the center of the world, perhaps even the center of the universe. It was the spot where one could only do certain religious things. It was a spot where one must go to to get certain things from the priests. It was a place that was the center of the spiritual world for the Jewish people, and that Herod would spend his money to rebuild the Temple certainly made him appear to be a pious person, and yet what we know both from the Gospels and from history is that Herod did have a true love, but that true love seemed to be power and domination.
Herod really wanted to be king even though he was not of the line of David. He was also someone who used the power of Rome to keep himself in his position. He was willing to make whatever deals need to be made to keep his power, and so he was in a little bit of a balancing act. On one hand, he had the people of Israel, on the other hand he had the Roman Empire, and he was trying to play both, and he was trying to play both for one specific reason, and that specific reason was to stay in power. And the reason why he rebuilt the Temple was not out of a love of anything holy, but out of a desire to keep his own power, and his relationship with the Hebrew people can be best described as oppressive. And the oppression that he put on the people he did not only to increase his own power, but also to increase his own personal wealth; hence when we hear about tax collectors, you’re probably hearing a bit about the government which was glad to take a lot of money from the people. So when we hear that the Pharisees went out to immediately conspire with the Herodians, that’s who we’re talking about, that’s the Herod we’re speaking of here. We’ll get back to the Pharisees in a moment.
The second person in today’s Gospel, appropriately, of course, is our Lord, Jesus. Unlike Pharisees, to an extent, unlike the Herodians, definitely, and unlike the Sadducees, for certain, unlike the officials at the Temple, all of these political parties that I mentioned, beside our Lord, all of these political parties knew that they were living in perilous and precarious times. They were living on a sword’s edge. As a matter of fact, before the close of the century that this Gospel was written, Jerusalem will be sacked and the very Temple that Herod built would be pulled down to the ground; destroyed utterly. To this day only one wall remains of Herod’s Temple, and that’s the western wall that people still pray at. That would happen under Roman rule. That giant blow-up that would see the destruction of Jerusalem, that would see the scattering of the Hebrew people, was imminent, and it could almost be sensed in the air, it seems, because everyone was trying to just keep it cool. Don’t have the big blow-up, because it will be disastrous, and to be fair, it was.
Jesus was a disrupter of that peace. We have a giant pile of kindling, we have gasoline. No open flames, please. And here comes this Man, talking about who the true King is, what the real Kingdom is, about the difference between fake power of this world, and the true power in the world. We’re talking about a Man who would not pay homage to the Emperor. We’re talking about followers who were looking for a Kingdom that was not of this world. Jesus scared a lot of people.
And then, the unlikely third party in our story today are the Pharisees, and, I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, but the Pharisees don’t honestly, sometimes, get a fair shake. So let’s talk about the Pharisees of history for a few seconds, and then the Pharisees of the Gospel. The Pharisees of history were a sect, a religious sect of the first century. And, when you hear about Pharisees in the Gospels, basically you could just say, Pharisees equal bad guy, right, and that pretty much get you what you need to know. But that’s not actually entirely fair. What you need to know about the Pharisee movement was that it was actually a populist movement in Judaism. In the way that I told you that the Temple was the center of spiritual life of the Hebrew people, and therefore the priests had a tight control on everyone’s spirituality, and the priests who were in collusion with the government; therefore, were helping to maintain the repressive order of the day. The Pharisees were something slightly subversive, slightly. They took the power somewhat; not fair, they took the focus, I would say, more away from the Temple, but they still wanted people to have a spiritual life, and so instead of focusing on the Temple, instead of focusing on the power structure, they said: We can just read the scriptures ourselves. And they used the scriptures as a way to take the focus’ shift away from the colluding powers of the day. That’s a little bit subversive. Now the way that they were able to tread this precarious ground was to say: We’re not going to get involved in politics. Just do what the scriptures say to do. There’s a list of rules, follow the rules. Even some of the rules that previously had only been for the priestly class, we’re going to make them for everyone; everyone is holy now; follow the rules, read the Scripture. You see where the problem’s going, don’t you. This is why Pharisee equals bad guy in the Gospels. Jesus reminds us that there are two commandments: you should love the Lord your God with everything you have, and you should love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets. The Pharisees were using the law, dare I say it, as an idol.
I have been led to believe by my own experiences that people can make idols of things that would otherwise be edifying. Scripture is important. Boundaries are important. But love is the law. That’s not my words, that’s our Lord’s words. And when Scripture, or a set of rules, are placed above God’s love, you have created an idol. You have worshipped something that is not God as if it were God. What is idolatry? The Psalms tell us: when you make a God that is dumb, that has eyes but cannot see. When you take an object or a thing and try to make that God, you have created an idol. And you can make Scripture an idol. If you worship the book but not what the book is pointing to, you have made the book an idol. Hence, Pharisee equal bad guy.
I think it’s dangerous to think that the Pharisees were the bad guys who lived only two thousand years ago, good thing we’re done with them, the bad guys are vanquished, if only that were true. I see Pharisees today. I see Pharisees who make idols of things that would otherwise be edifying and even holy and place them above God and God’s love; lest we forget, Scripture reminds us very plainly: God is love. Do not place anything above God. Ironically, one of the commandments. The Pharisee nature is alive and well, and the Pharisee nature, to be fair, is alive and well in me.
That any time that I think that, instead of following the rule that I am to love my neighbor as myself and love the Lord my God with everything that I have, that I reduce what I think is holy to a checklist of do’s and don’ts, devoid of love. When I’m shaking my finger at someone self-righteously, in a very Pharisee-like manner, and thinking that they’ve done wrong, tisk tisk, and I’m not thinking of them as a human being, as a child of God, as my brother or sister. If they become a sinner before they become a brother, I am being a Pharisee. I am making an idol of the law.
So with that, indulge me for a moment, with all the background, let’s hear the Gospel one more time one time. “One Sabbath, Jesus’s disciples were going through the grainfields; and as they made their way, the disciples began to pluck up the heads of grain, and the Pharisees said to them, ‘Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” And I’m going to skip ahead, “And Jesus said to them ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.’” And then our Lord shows what it’s like to follow the law, rather than worship the law.
He doesn’t just shake his finger at the Pharisees and tell them they’re sinners, although there’s plenty of that going on in the Gospels, don’t worry, but he’s not just doing that. He goes and he makes someone whole. He takes a person who was, from birth, hurt, possibly pushed to the margins, and he healed them at that moment, he made him whole. He broke the law when he fed His disciples on the Sabbath, technically speaking. He loved that man, that marginalized man, and made him whole, and that’s the true law. Love the Lord your God, with all of your heart, all of your mind, everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself, and remember that to love is a verb, not an emotion. Love isn’t what you feel, it’s what you do. So when I’m having my conversation with my inner Pharisee, this is what I must remind myself of. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.