The Pharisees! In today’s Gospel reading, we see this particular group of people who had some issues with Jesus and try to argue with him. Who are they? There are a number of stories about them in the Gospels; mostly, they are known for conflicts they had with John the Baptist and with Jesus. In those stories, the Pharisees appear to be really obsessed with keeping certain rules and rituals—especially concerning purity. Also, they act like self-righteous hypocrites placing the letter of the law above its spirit. In other words, they value the word-by-word observance of the law of Moses more than the actual practice of love for God and for neighbor. It is not a coincident that Jesus rejects their ideas and denounces them all the time. No doubt, they are the bad guys! Right?
But, wait a minute… is it really fair to judge them just like that? Isn’t it quite harsh to simply write them off as wrongdoers? Perhaps, those Pharisees, who got involved in unpleasant episodes with Jesus, would be some hardliners, some radicals among them. Perhaps, not all Pharisees would be such arrogant and close-minded hypocrites. In fact, historically, the Pharisees were known as good people. Josephus, who was a first-century historian, tells us that the Pharisees were fully supported by common people for their good deeds, in contrast to the more elite and upper-class religious group called Sadducees, who also appear in the Gospels. Most of the Pharisees were well-intended people who tried hard to keep their faith in God in a turbulent time. Their ideal was to pursue everyday sanctification by the law, against the dominant cultural and religious influence of the Romans. And surprisingly to us, they had little political power, so it was unlikely for them to play a major role in Jesus’ death. No doubt, we can’t just singlehandedly say that all of them were bad guys.
The Pharisees… more or less, they look like any other groups of believers… even just like us here today. In this group, there must be amicable people, serious people, passionate people, liberal people, conservative people and so on. Just like us; we are different from one another, but we gather together in our common faith. The Pharisees wanted to keep their traditions and practices that they thought were right. Just like us; we cherish our own favorite styles of worship and spiritual disciplines, and want to do good through our ministries. Still, the Pharisees surely made some mistakes; they were sometimes stuck with their rules and customs and they couldn’t discern what’s really important. This also seems just like us who sometimes refuse to see beyond our own ways of believing God and serving the church, even when those ways become obsolete and lifeless. Do the Pharisees somehow look just like us?
Now, having that said about the Pharisees, can we read the stories of the Pharisees in the Gospels differently? One thing for sure is that we can’t simply criticize and blame the Pharisees while staying safely on Jesus’ side—the good guy’s side. That must be an easy way out for us. Condemning the Pharisees’ wrongdoings on the side of Jesus, we may feel good about ourselves. But is there any other way to read the living Word of God in a way that it is truly meaningful and lifegiving to us? Today, I believe, the Gospel of Mark invites us to stand on the Pharisees’ side. It takes us to the place of the Pharisees, and on that side, we encounter Jesus who sees us… who sees us through our minds and our hearts. Standing on the Pharisees’ side in the story, we may ask to ourselves, “How would Jesus see us?” “To the eyes of Jesus, how would we look like?”
In today’s Gospel story, there comes a two-part confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. In part one, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. When they get hungry, the disciples pluck a few heads of grain to munch on. But Jesus doesn’t stop them. So the Pharisees challenge Jesus, asking why he’s allowing his followers to do such a unlawful thing on the Sabbath, the day people shouldn’t harvest. Then Jesus answers, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). (4) In part two, Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand. Knowing that the Pharisees are watching him, Jesus asks them whether it’s lawful to “do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill” (Mark 3:4). The Pharisees are silent. Angered and grieved by the hardness of their hearts, Jesus heals the man’s withered hand.
In both parts, what does Jesus see? I believe, Jesus sees the things that the Pharisees are clinging to other than God. Jesus sees that the Pharisees hold on to the laws of righteousness and the rules of holiness more than to God; they cannot seek God who is the compassionate and lifegiving love and also God’s kingdom where the hungry are fed and the broken made whole. Jesus clearly sees the Pharisees cling to other things, not to God. Today, as we put ourselves in the Pharisees’ position, what would Jesus see in us? Certainly, Jesus would see the things that we are clinging to other than God. What do we hold on to that is not God? Our pride, reason, ability, and experience? What mortal things have we prioritized over God’s compassionate love? Our plans, benefits, rules, and preferences? What kind of barriers have we built in our minds and hearts? Our judgment, hatred, complacency, and indifference? With all these, we sometimes lose the sight of God’s grace working in and through us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, to be mature Christians, even if it is quite difficult, we need to see ourselves as Jesus sees. Of course, Jesus sees us through his eyes of everlasting love. But at the same time Jesus sees us through his eyes of justice and righteousness. And I think Jesus wouldn’t mind saying some words of admonishment to us today. Let us try to see as Jesus sees. We may find our own blindness that hinders the power of God’s love from perpetrating in our lives and ministry. We may find our own rigid hearts that make us adhere to what is not God and what is not for God’s kingdom. “How would Jesus see us?” “To the eyes of Jesus, how would we look like?” As we find our answers to the questions, may the Spirit of the Lord be with us and awaken us to our shortcomings, liberate us from what we are falsely clinging to, and lead us to seek God and God’s kingdom first always. Amen.
Josephus, Antiquities, 18:12-15; 13:297-298.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdamans 1985), 1246-1251.