I am afraid I might identify with the Pharisees. We all could.
In our Gospel for today, Jesus does not reject the sabbath, the 3rd commandment, the law itself.
He does not reject Judaism, a religion and identity centered on a covenant to be God’s people.
Jesus rejects the way these Pharisees are interpreting the law, and that would make anyone defensive.
The interpretation of the Law they were forcing on others, was hurting real people. To forbid healing, eating, or traveling to bring the good news to more people on the sabbath is a perversion of God’s Law. But no doubt the Pharisees who were enforcing these practices didn’t jump to those outcomes on day 1. For who would hear Moses reading from the tablets and immediately declare: Those who are in need of some kind of restoration to wholeness in body or in relationships, can’t seek that one day a week? Or those who are hungry but didn’t have the means to prepare ahead should not eat that day? Everyone would see the inhumanity in that.
But there is this slow creep of apathy, of gradually letting go of things that are intensely important, core to our faith, and our knowledge of God’s love for humankind, that happens to all of us. Because, well, we weren’t holding on, keeping it at the core of who we are, or we simply weren’t paying attention and it was taken away. One day we look up and we are not who we set out to be. We let go of some principles when we’re holding too tightly to being right or being the authority or just trying to keep things the way they are. It happens to all of us. Jesus summarized the entire Law in just 2 statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet we loosen our grip on these commitments, and how much effort and intentionality they take, and we let their interpretation slip into the hands of those who want to control, manipulate, or frame them for their own benefit. Sometimes those people are even ourselves.
Take for example, the ways children are being separated from their parents when crossing this country’s border as immigrants or asylum-seekers. Those who present themselves to a checkpoint to seek asylum through the approved process, fleeing violence in Central America, have their children as young as 18 months taken from them, with no time-line for reunification. I cannot even fathom the cruelty. Most of us didn’t even know this was the practice of this current administration to “deter immigration” until it was in the news earlier this week. But it has been going on for months, as the political conversation about immigrants has turned from talking about them as refugees from violence and poverty – neighbors to love – to criminals who are trying to “enter our home illegally.” There is no excuse for destroying the only security these parents and children have left – each other. Oh, it feels shameful to be called out on this. My attention was diverted elsewhere. I thought we were past the worst when the Muslim travel bans were mostly struck down in the courts.
But now I have to recognize: this is who we are, or who we’ve allowed ourselves to become. Desensitized to what I know is the most cruel form of punishment for already traumatized people, ripping apart parents and children. And I have to admit that it’s not just those people who work at the border who are enforcing this. It is me too, if I do not act to put a stop to it. When Jesus asks if we know what is right or wrong and we stand mute, like the Pharisees in our Gospel reading, we are complicit. So how do I respond, when I realize that instead of insulting these Pharisees, I might actually be like them in some ways?
Do I plot to discredit or do away with those who call me out on my sins of commission or omission? I wonder if there was even one of those Pharisees who was convicted by meeting Jesus, stopped in his tracks and realized, “He’s right. I love the Law of Moses and God, and we’ve twisted it.” What does he do? It takes tremendous courage to put your self on the line for strangers who are being harmed by your peers, the group you are a part of. Maybe he doesn’t fully agree, but there’s too much at stake personally, or for his family, supporting these people has gotten him where he is, and they could take it all away. So he says nothing. We don’t want to reckon with the powers that have put us where we are; we are beholden to them. We don’t want to admit that our principles are not what got us where we are, but our complicity with letting them go.
To confess that we are doing wrong in the present can also dredge up past sins, for example, that separating parents and children of color is part of the fabric of this country: first slave children from their parents, and all the way into the 1970s, separating Native American children from their families to be assimilated in boarding schools. This cruelty is not new, just a new form. It is so much to reckon with, of course we become defensive.
The Pharisees immediately begin conspiring with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. They aligned themselves with others who would shut him up, so he would have to stop calling them out on their sins. Yet there is a choice, even from the middle of a crowd of angry Pharisees, of how to respond when Jesus shows us the truth about how far our lives have strayed from the Law of God. We fight this, or we fight Jesus.
Now owning this sin and try desperately to repair it sounds exhausting, for people who weren’t trying to hurt anybody, but just, you know, were carried along by the momentum of being comfortably in the midst of this crowd. Yet confession and restitution are like sabbath for our souls, a gift from God. A sabbath of grace. God loves us unconditionally, without us following any rules or making anybody else follow any rules, without our defenses up and our positions protected. Just loving and being loved. But to do that, we have to recognize the truth. Resting in God’s pre-emptive love, we can step out of our position embedded among the Pharisees, and follow Jesus, who knows the truth about us. He will take us, even as we are, but he will not leave us there. Give us courage, O God, to step out of the crowd and follow you.