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.


Thirtieth Day of Lent

Luke 6:1-11
6 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

3 Jesus answered them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ 5 Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’

6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone.’ So he got up and stood there.

9 Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’

10 He looked round at them all, and then said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Did you notice that the word ‘law’ or some version of it is mentioned five times in these verses. And the word Sabbath is used six times. It should alert us to the troubling connection between religion and power. 

There are those who would seek to control the lives of others through fear, and what greater fear could their be than the fear of exclusion, particularly if they claim a power of exclusion that stretches into the afterlife. If you don’t behave in a certain way, you will be excluded from heaven.

Every religion has those who want to define membership on the basis of adherence to some law. They are the ones who wish to enforce some standard of purity which the rest of us are required to meet, but really those standards are designed to reinforce their own authority.

And so here in these two stories about conflict over law and Sabbath. The gatekeepers of the faith have defined a required standard for behaviour on the Sabbath, parsing the Law down to minutiae in which plucking ears of corn amounts to harvesting. They watch in case Jesus engages in the work of healing. But Jesus cleverly doesn’t touch the man so couldn’t be accused of ‘working’ at the healing, nor could the man be accused of applying something to his body which would make his body ‘work’ at healing.

Their parsing of the Law meant that even simple acts of kindness couldn’t be done for fear of falling foul of the Law. More than that, their application of the Law mean someone could AVOID doing the compassionate thing because to do so would break the Law.

Jesus confronts these purists again and again. For Jesus, any rule which releases me from acts of kindness and generosity, or requires acts of unkindness in the face of obvious need is a rule that must be broken. Even if it attracts the anger of the rule-makers.

Now it should be said that Jesus was not an iconoclast, attacking traditions just for the sake of it. He was utterly committed to the Gospel message that he outlined in Luke 4:18-19; good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. His message was not a message that imposed a new form of law and rule keeping but which declared the year of the Lord’s favour.

Anything that was contrary to this vision was something that needed to be opposed, confronted and provoked. And he did so from within, from a deep knowledge of the history and tradition, so he could quote a contrary story about David (Luke 6:3-4), and also a deep familiarity about the minutiae, hence his instruction to stretch out a hand.

We should always be alert to those experts in religious law who want to impose order through its observation. It is worth thinking about who has a voice in the setting and the application of law, and whose voice is being silenced by the law. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that groups, communities and organisations defined and organised around the principle of purity are destined for conflict, because no-one will ever be pure enough, and destined for decline, as they splinter endlessly over ever-increasingly ridiculous parsing of the Law.

Jesus said it himself, the Law was made for us, to enable us to live free. We were not made to be subjects of the Law (Mark 2:27)

Beware of religious bullies who use Law to enforce their power. If the Law does not support the increase of compassion in the world it is a Law that needs to be broken.

You are the God of the Law
And the Breaker of the Law.

Give us wisdom to know
When Law is being used to oppress and to bully
And then the courage
To break that Law

For the sake of those who lack the power,
Or agency, or courage
To do so themselves


Twelfth Day of Lent

Luke 10:30-35
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

The thing about this story is that the priest and the Levite do exactly what they are supposed to do, and everyone listening to Jesus tell this story would do the same. The Law REQUIRED them to pass by on the other side. And nobody would think any higher of the Samaritan for doing what he did because, well, he’s a Samaritan, and they didn’t keep the Law anyway.

That’s because the Law as they understood it was a Law of limitations. They were required to know the minutiae of the Law so that they would know what to do and what not to do. The expert in the Law who prompted Jesus to tell the story, given that he was an expert, had probably kept the Law in its entirety as they understood it, but his question is important. “Who is my neighbour?” said the man (Luke 10:29).

The form of the question is critical to understanding an approach to Law that was the common heritage of many Jews of Jesus day, and, if we’re honest, of many Christians todayl. The intent of the question is to elicit a response which will direct me towards those to whom I owe the duty of neighbourliness, and by extension those to whom I have no responsibility. It is a Law of limitations.

For the priest and the Levite in Jesus story, as well as the expert in the Law who questioned Jesus, the Law always trumped compassion. Faced with a situation in which I am challenged to extend neighbourliness in such a way as would break the Law, then I must ALWAYS keep the Law.

So the priest and the Levite do the right thing. The Law always trumps compassion.

At the end of the story though, Jesus very cleverly changes the question in a quite fundamental way, which reveals Jesus attitude to the Law. Jesus asks “Who was a neighbour to the man?” (Luke 10:36)

For Jesus there is no limitation on neighbourliness and compassion. This is quite revolutionary, even today.

For in Jesus’ understanding, neighbourliness ALWAYS trumps the Law.

Faced with a situation in which I am challenged to extend neighbourliness in such a way as would break the Law, then I must ALWAYS be a neighbour.

Therefore in this parable, the priest and the Levite should have broken the Law to extend help to the beaten man.

I should never hide behind Law, if doing so relieves me of being a neighbour.

And if I am ever in a dilemma of the right thing to do in a situation, then best to err on the side of compassion. Always.

God of love and grace
It would be so much easier to be a disciple
If I could just keep the rules;
If I didn’t have to navigate
The dangerous territories of compassion.

But you seek disciples
With hearts of flesh
And not of stone.

You seek disciples
Who are always willing
To lay aside the law
To bind up wounds.

Make me one of those kinds