Sunday, August 15, 2010

August 15

OT: Neh. 9:22-10:29

The Levites finished their history-laced prayer today, which led me to marvel that, after all that has befallen this nation, they are still able to clearly see the guidance of the hand of God. I think that our temptation is often to see God in the good things, but to lose sight of Him and question Him in the bad things. The Israelites had had a lot of bad things happen to them, and yet they maintained both their faith and a coherent narrative that helped them understand what was going on. I think that is remarkable from both a religious and a secular perspective. From a Christian perspective, that example of tenacious faith is just inspiring. From a secular perspective, the ability to form a coherent life narrative that gives meaning and hope, even in the face of tragedy and adversity, is pretty cool, as well.

I also appreciated their renewed resolve to serve God. I don't know much about the intertestamental period, but it seems like the faith of the Israelites held up pretty well through that time. Now again, I don't know the history incredibly well (though I do know about the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty and all that), but since Nehemiah is the last book chronologically, and then the next non-apocryphal writings are the Gospels, I would theorize that there is a direct link between these well-intentioned Hebrews and the Pharisees of Jesus' day.

And I've been meaning to talk about the Pharisees, since I was recently accused of giving them a bad rap:). Last year, I actually read a fair amount of history about the rise of the sects of Judaism (Pharisee, Saducee, Zealot, Essene) that were present in Jesus' day. And from reading about the Pharisees, I gained a lot of sympathy for them. They were truly zealous for the Law, and in their passionate discussions about the Law (many of which were compiled it the Talmud?), they sought to make the Law accessible to a culture very far removed from the culture to which it was originally written. In other words, the Law was given to a nomadic people. The Pharisees had to figure out how to still follow it while now settled in cities. In their intense study of the Law, they sought to make it applicable to their own time period, and accessible to all those living in similar circumstances. Bravo! Furthermore, b/c of their passion for the Law, they sought to put a "hedge around Torah" in order to keep from breaking it. Thus, they were willing to live by guidelines even more stringent than the Law out of a reverent desire not to break the Law. Again, bravo.

I will wholeheartedly agree that the Pharisees may have had the best of intentions, as perhaps evidenced by the Jewish zeal shown in today's reading. These people were excited, ready, and willing, to follow the Law. But I can also see how that same passion for God led to the caricature that is so often shown in the NT. I know that b/c I have grown up surrounded by people who love God very much, who fear Him incredibly, and who honestly seek to stay in His favor and to help other people stay in His favor. And while I love all of those motivations, I have also seen so often how those same great motivations have led people to become a caricature. I have seen those motivations lead to a state where people think it is wrong to do any dancing, to drink any alcohol, to play cards, to go swimming with members of the opposite sex, and so on and so on and so on. I'm not necessarily saying that those are bad ideas, but I don't think they are biblical laws. And it can get to the point where, in their earnestness, those people are condemning toward other people. They place heavy burdens on other people, telling them that this is how to be right with God. I have also seen cases where the human susceptibility to pride and self-righteousness creeps in, and where such people do become "whitewashed sepulchres," full of holiness on the outside, and malice and pride on the inside.

So...the reason I believe the Gospels rendition of the Pharisees is not because I hate the Pharisees. It is because I know the Pharisees. Heck, it is because I am the Pharisee, or have been so many different times in my life. (Full-disclosure: I still feel like a Pharisee on a regular basis. Part of me, for example, is just not sure that God is down with spaghetti straps, and sometimes this makes me judgmental. I know that sounds dumb, but I'm just keeping it real. Spaghetti straps aren't wrong in themselves...but can't they lead to lust? And yet, I know I probably wear things that others tsk-tsk at me about, and probably not unfairly! But what I'm wearing? That's fine. What others are wearing? That crosses the line. See? Do you see how I am a Pharisee? I'm not down on these people; I'm sobered by them.)

How does all that tie in with today's reading? Just this: I am excited for the renewed dedication of the Jews, here. I really am. I've been there myself so many times; I've even put it in writing, just like they are doing. But I also know that their battle has just begun. Facing down the demons of polytheism in one thing. Facing down the demons of the human heart is quite another.

NT: I Cor. 9:19-10:13

Wow, there is a lot here. First of all, Paul's "all things to all people" remarks have been seminal in guiding me on how to reach out to others. I love that Paul is able to adapt, to reach people where they are.

I also love the imagery of running in such a way to get the prize. I am not a runner, but I do have the drive to excel. And these verses motivate me and remind me that living for God is what is most worthy of my ambition and my drive for excellence. God does not want my leftovers; He wants all my passion and dedication to be directed to the object of glorifying Him. And I love the reminder that "I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air" (26). My life, my actions have eternal purpose. Sometimes in trying to be a light and to fight back the darkness, I do feel like a man beating the air. It feels like I am doing nothing worthwhile, nothing effective, nothing lasting. And yet, these verses bolster my faith and remind me that I am running and fighting for something real.

In 10:1-12, Paul explains that the OT was given as an example for us. And as crazy as my feeble mind finds God to be in the OT, I can get behind the idea that it exists to remind us to fear this awesome Being who breathed us into existence. The OT God is as much God as Jesus is. God is both mercy and might, grace and wrath. Sometimes, I have a tendency to play up one side at the expense of the other.

Lastly, verse 13 has provided hope for so, so many. First of all, it reminds us that we are not unique in our temptations. As much as we suffer from temptation, our suffering are simply a byproduct of being human. Secondly, the verse reminds us that God is with us when we are tempted and will give us a way out. And I have to say, I do always see a way out when I'm tempted. Now, choosing to take that way out, that's the hard part.

Psalm 34:1-10

This is another great psalm that I'm sure I wrote about well the first time:). I love verses 7-8...really, I love the whole thing. I do think it is interesting, though, that David wrote such an amazing psalm after he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, a successful tactic about which I was pretty ambivalent.

Provers 21:13

"If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered."



  1. I still say the New Testament portrait of the Pharisees is unfair. Yes, some Pharisees may have lived up to the picture painted in some of the gospels, but certainly not all of them is. It is unfair to judge a group by its worst stereotype. To use Pharisee as a synonym for someone who gets caught up in legalities is just as unfair and insulting as to use Black as a synonym for someone who is lazy.

    Thus, when you say "I am the Pharisee" I recoil the same way as I think any reasonable minded person would if they heard someone say, "I am black, or have been so many times in my life. I have often been lazy and superstitious."

  2. Oh, good--I was hoping you'd write.

    Sorry, but I'm just not buying the comparison b/t Pharisees and black people. Phariseeism is a chosen belief system based on a zeal for God's written word. As such, it has incredibly strong parallels to conservative Christians' zeal for God's written word. A big part of every Christian's life consists in trying to figure out how to apply 2,000 year old teachings to a society that is very, very different from the context of those teachings, much like Pharisees sought to apply the law to life in Jerusalem. I do not believe that it is thus unfair for me to draw parallels to the Pharisees.

  3. You kind of missed the whole point of the analogy. If the fact that being a Pharisee is a choice and being black is not seems so significant to you, you can change it to a guy saying "I am the gay guy. I have been effeminate and promiscuous."

    What is unfair in your portrayal of Pharisees is that you assume that they can be primarily represented as proud and self-righteous. You use "Pharisee" to mean "proud and self righteous" in the same way that some people use "black" to mean "lazy and superstitious" or "gay" to mean "effeminate and promiscuous".

    This is bad for two reasons: First, it devalues the good in some group by emphasizing the bad. Second, it attributes to a whole group attitudes that only belonged to some of them.

    I do not object to you drawing parallels to the Pharisees. What I object to is your reduction of the Pharisees to a stereotype. Your identification of "Pharisee" with a particular attitude held by some of them. It's disrespectful, and the fact that the people you are disrespecting died millenia ago does not change that fact.

  4. I see what you are saying, and I have tried to convey that I do see the good in the Pharisees. At the same time, I think our biggest difference is that I believe the Bible's characterization. I believe in the Bible, remember?:)

    And perhaps b/c I start from a point of belief, I see evidence of the Bible's characterization all around me in people, like myself, who share a lot of beliefs in common with the Pharisees. Like the principle that "power corrupts," I believe that "zeal for the law leads to legalism leads to self-righteousness." Neither of these principles mean that power or zeal or bad in themselves, or that every powerful or zealous person is bad, but it does mean that their is a definite behavioral trend there. And when I call myself a Pharisee, I am not referring to myself as a horrible person. I am referring to myself as a person who is both zealous for the law (good) and at times legalistic and self-righteous (bad). I do think they go hand in hand much more than you seem to, though.

    And the bottom line is, I believe that Jesus understood the hearts of the people He was talking to better than you or I do over 2,000 years later. Again, that is a faith thing, and a thus, a place where you and I might have to agree to disagree:).

  5. I see your point, and I see that you're not going to change your mind. So I'll just leave you with this one point which may hopefully lead you to reconsider your usage of the word "Pharisee".

    Despite all of your caveats, usages like this, according to my Jewish friends that I have asked, are extremely insulting. They are seen as disrespectful to their heritage and they see the characterization as wrong. Yes, Jesus may have understood the people he was talking to better than you or I, but I think that modern day Jews also have some pretty good authority on the subject and, unlike Jesus, they are actually getting insulted when you talk this way.

    You point out that one fundamental difference between us in this conversation is that you believe the Bible. I will point out that one fundamental difference is that you do not seem to realize (or perhaps you don't care) that your usage of "Pharisee" is seen as deeply insulting to people.