Thirty-Second Day of Lent

Luke 11:37-54
37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

In recent years scholars have begun to re-evaluate the treatment of the Pharisees in Christian tradition. So much so that today scholars would describe Luke’s presentation of the Pharisees as puzzling, complex and often inconsistent. For instance, Luke doesn’t mention the Pharisees at all in connection with the narrative around the passion of Jesus, and mentions Pharisees as members of the early Christian community (Acts 15:5). Yet the first words attributed to them in the Gospel of Luke show them totally misunderstanding Jesus—at best (Luke 5:21).

They grumble at the disciples, accusing Jesus of inappropriate table fellowship (Luke 5:30 and 15:2) and question Jesus about his disciples’ failure to fast (Luke 5:33). On and on they argue about John’s baptism (Luke 7:29-30), about Sabbath obedience and even Sabbath violation (Luke 6:6-11).

And yet Pharisees regularly host Jesus at table (where they seem to be always arguing).

Yet in the culture of the day the Pharisees were often beloved by the ordinary people, particularly the poor. They were frequently poor themselves, and not many of them were wealthy. They were also intensely loyal to the nation and to their faith. Indeed, after one uprising the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus ordered the crucifixion of 800 Pharisees and ordered the throats of their children and their wives to be cut before their eyes. This incident would conceivably be within the memory of some who were still alive in Jesus day.

Indeed some would even argue that Jesus was a member of the Pharisees.

But he departed from them in their interpretation of the Law. It seems to be that for the Pharisees the keeping of the Law was the way to assert identity and insider status. Indeed it got so complicated that keeping the Law was completely outside the capacity of most people. Jesus stood vehemently opposed to this notion and understanding of the Law.

We should not imagine however, that Jesus came to do away with the Jewish Law. Not at all. He came to fulfil it, and he says as much in Matt 5:17. By this I think he meant that he saw his role as restoring the proper place of the Law. Jesus objected to an attitude to the Law which permitted someone to be compliant in all their external behaviours an activities, yet have a hardened and unloving heart.

His very graphic illustration in this passage drives this point home. You can wash the outside of the cup until it is spotlessly clean, but inside be filthy and unhygienic (Luke 11:39). What is the value of such a cleaning regime?

But the evidence that a person has understood the true intent of the Law is that this person is generous towards the poor (Luke 11:41).

In our day things are slightly different in that we have different laws, but similar attitudes are still to be found. For instance, some would tell us that true Christianity is about professing certain beliefs and ideas about God and Jesus. That holding firm to certain doctrinal formulations of the Trinity or the Atonement marks us out as a proper orthodox Christian.

I suspect that Jesus might confront this approach to faith very vigorously. It’s the kind of faith which measures orthodoxy by right belief rather than right behaviour. We could perhaps update Jesus harangue of the Pharisees here to say “Woe to you because you profess the right doctrines, attend the right churches, are seen in the correct company but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

It might be that Jesus cares less about our profession than he does about our practice of faith.

And I, for one, wouldn’t want to argue with him about it!

This is a risky one, but think about the culture of belief you live in and about the rules for what’s right and what’s wrong. For instance, maybe you’ve been brought up to believe that Catholics aren’t real Christians (or vice versa). Why not try breaking the rules just for this occasion (blame me!). Buy a book, or hunt down youtube videos of Thomas Merton, Joan Chittister or Richard Rohr and seek to learn from a different tradition.

Draw near, draw near Lord Jesus
And examine me inside and out.
Preserve me from self-righteousness
Or petty outward rule keeping.

Remove from me any trace of judgmentalism
or any narrow-minded fundamentalism
That values the rules over behaviour and action
In the world.

Cultivate in me a heart change
that makes me generous and hospitable towards all
That makes me as clean on the inside as on the outside

That I may more fully follow
In your footsteps.


Eighteenth Day of Lent

Luke 7:1-10
7 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was ill and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go”, and he goes; and that one, “Come”, and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this”, and he does it.’

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

This is another very familiar miracle of Jesus which seems to hinge on questions of worthiness and authority.

The centurion in the story seems like a truly good individual who, as a Roman and therefore a Gentile, seems to enjoy the love and respect of the Jewish Elders of the town. We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this.

The Elders come to Jesus with a request that Jesus should heal the beloved servant of the Centurion. The text says they ‘pleaded earnestly’ with Jesus (Luke 7:4). The reason they do this is at least partly related to their sense of the man’s worthiness. In fact they claim that this man ‘deserves to have you do this,’ (Luke 7:4) and then proceed to relate the reasons why this man has proved himself worthy.

I don’t think these Elders are nasty, or have any ulterior motive to trap Jesus into doing or saying something that would get him into trouble. It seems that there is a genuine and unusual relationship here between people who would normally be enemies.

I’m reluctant to be too critical of the Elders who have made a significant cultural leap to speak positively of this Roman and to recognise in him a person of compassion. Too often we refuse to humanise our enemies by not acknowledging the goodness that can be found in them. But I think we need to think about the language of ‘deserving’ here. The Elders imagine he is worthy of blessing because he has done good things. This man merited Jesus attention for his actions.

I’m glad that God doesn’t think that the Gospel should work on a merit system. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to try and live up to it continually? Not only that, but how fearful we would end up living our lives if grace was a meritocracy? And how unfair life would be, for we all know people who live incredibly good lives and yet they suffer. The reverse is also true. And how terrifying it would be to have other people decide for us whether or not we are worthy.

Any community which works under the merit system, where some decide who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving and who is not, is doomed to fall apart.

By contrast the Centurion seems to understand that Jesus operates under a whole different system, which Jesus later describes as ‘faith’ (Luke 7:9). The Centurion perhaps discerns that by his request he has placed Jesus in a difficult position. If he comes to the house of a Gentile Jesus will automatically make himself ritually unclean, and he decides to save Jesus the trouble. So he sends some friends this time to deliver a message to Jesus.

The Centurion, a man of considerable authority, recognises that despite all his good works he is not worthy of Jesus. He recognises that the merit system is inadequate and that Jesus had the kind of authority that didn’t depend on any religious, political or military institution for its power.

This Gentile understood the power of a word to make things happen, even at a distance. He used it everyday in his work. But the word of Jesus had an authority to make things happen not because of his position or status but because of his connection to God. “Say the word and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:7).

The story says that Jesus was ‘amazed’ at the faith of this man (Luke 7:9). The greek word is thaumazo and is more often a word used to describe the reaction of others who see the incredible things Jesus does. What a testament to the faith of the Centurion!

There are many things to consider in this story, but maybe two will suffice for now. I am moved to ask myself how open I am to seeing goodness and even faith in people I might otherwise consider my enemy? It causes me to reflect on the extent to which I function under a merit system where others are concerned, but am happy to be a recipient of grace when it is me who is being judged.

I am not worthy
To receive you.
But only say the word
And I shall be healed.