I recently heard yet another sermon in which the Pharisees were spoken of as the small-minded, hard-hearted enemies of Jesus who conspired to end him. It is so discouraging to hear Christians tell this lie over and over. Holy Week is the lie’s high season. It is coming, and it is enough to make me want to skip church until after Holy Week is over.
The Pharisees are not legalistic, small-minded or hard-hearted. They were the holders and keepers of a dream. They did the hard work of living the Law in an environment not made for the law.
The Law was God’s gift, given in order to show God’s people a way to live a righteous life. Keeping the Law was the beginning of wisdom, but it was not given for personal edification. It was given to a people — a community — and the community’s commitment to keeping the Law was what held it together. The Law was no small thing and it was not static. Faithfully living the Law presented many, many complex questions and issues. It required strong, faithful, creative, pious teachers.
The Pharisees were those teachers, interpreting the law that promised to give rise to a more just and humane community, and a people who could grow closer to the heart of God. Think “Beloved Community.” Being a Pharisee was a thankless job in an environment like Jerusalem where the dream was always at risk, always threatened by an occupation army and culture. They were always looking for allies and friends and doubtless worrying about who would arise in the next generation to shoulder their burden.
If the gospel accounts are to be believed, the Pharisees spent a lot of time around Jesus, or he spent a lot of time with them. Which ever it was, I have no doubt that it was because they were his best friends and teachers: the people with whom he could discuss the meaning of the Law and the Prophets and all that worried him about the problems of the day.
The Pharisees were Jesus’ best friends and closest allies, and to cast them as his enemies is a lie.
For those who insist on preaching the lie…
“If to get a good message you need to make Judaism look bad, then you don’t have a good message.”
Amy-Jill Levine interviewed by Elizabeth Palmer in Christian Century. 3/13/19
What follows is a sermon I gave in the Unplugged Community at St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco in 2004, the week Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” was released.
Telling the Truth
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Maybe someone said that to us. Maybe we’ve said it to our own children to comfort them. Ironically, we know that it’s not true: some words, some names can hurt. The power of words to hurt, to alienate and even to destroy is part of our own experience and part of human history.
There are words being said and a story being told this week that has a long-established power and purpose to destroy. It is the story of the death of Jesus, as told by Mel Gibson in the movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
I heard Gibson being interviewed this week, responding to that charge that the movie was dangerous, anti-semitic, anti-Jewish. He seemed unconcerned about that charge. He said he was just telling the story the way it happened. The way the Bible said it happened. He was just telling it as it was.
But the story he is telling is a lie.
The gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – the books that tell the life story of Jesus, are not historical fact. They are not exercises in investigative reporting. At their best, they are stories and narratives written long after the fact, in order to give early students and followers of Jesus’ teachings a way to remember, reflect on and celebrate his life and his teaching. That is what the gospels are, at their best.
Unfortunately, they were also written to serve another purpose. To appreciate that other purpose, we need to understand what was going on when they were written.
- The gospels are not contemporaneous. The gospel stories are not the first or earliest documents in the Christian tradition, (although one might think so since they are at the beginning of the New Testament.) In fact, if the 27 books of the New Testament were arranged in chronological order, the four gospels would be in the middle. Paul’s nine or ten letters would come first, then the four gospels, then a bunch of letters whose authorship is unknown.
- The gospels were not written until at least 40 years after Jesus life and death. Most, if not all, of the eyewitnesses were dead.
- If they didn’t have personal memory, what did the writers of the gospels use? There was probably a list of Jesus’ sayings that people had memorized. There were stories that were passed down, possibly embellished a bit in the passing. Beyond that, there were a few known facts: (1) Jesus probably came from Galilee, (2) he had a reputation as a great teacher and healer and he seemed to have a following in Jerusalem, (3) he was executed by the Roman-in-charge of Judea: Pontius Pilate.
- How the rest got filled in, particularly the story about Jesus’ death, had more to do with what was happening during the years in which the gospels were written than it had to do with what actually happened to Jesus.
- What was happening when the gospels were being written? Most importantly, the Roman Empire was militarily occupying Judea. It had been during Jesus’ time, as well, but as bad as it was under Pilate, it was worse 40 years later when the gospels were written. Around the year 65, groups of Judeans revolted. Some of these Judeans were observant Jews affiliated with one school or sect or another, some were not. Some were interested in the Jesus teachings, some were not. But they were Judeans all fed up with the Roman oppression, and they tried to throw Rome out. Rome responded quickly and brutally, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and killing thousands of Judeans.
- The versions of the Jesus story that we have are the versions that belonged to those who survived that holocaust. Maybe those versions survived because they had found a way to tell the story of Jesus’ death in a way that did not offend the Romans (because it did not blame Pilate.) Maybe the stories that were written in this period reflected intra-faith tensions the Jewish community as it, along with all Judeans, endured persecution. We don’t know. What we do know is that the story that survived exonerated Pilate and the Romans, and implicated the native Judean leadership. And that was a lie.
That lie, that the Jews killed Jesus, has been used to justify the exile, disenfranchisement and murder of millions of innocent people.
Once we recognize a lie, we are responsible for ending it, and for telling the truth.
None of us here is responsible for the original telling of that lie, or for the way it became a part of the Christian tradition. But if we take that word up, treat it like the truth, and perpetuate it, then we are responsible. The church has perpetuated the lie for centuries and has yet to take responsibility for that. The church’s silence is bad enough. For Mel Gibson to have spent 25 million dollars to tell the lie again, in living color, is reprehensible.
Where does it leave Christians if it is true that the gospels themselves contain this lie?
- Hopefully, it leaves us a little more humble when we start proving things with scripture.
- Hopefully, it makes us a little more aware of the power of words and stories. What we say to one another and about one another does matter. Words and names and lies can kill as surely as sticks and stones.
What about our sacred texts? If the New Testament is tainted with this lie, can we still use it in our search for enlightenment and truth? I would answer with a qualified “yes.”
Christians, like Jews, say of scripture that it is “divinely inspired.” It is not a historical record or an exercise in investigative reporting. It is words and stories which, over the centuries have demonstrated the capacity to encourage people and seekers in their desire to honor what is good, to build up the human community, to heal, dream, create justice, and welcome strangers into the circle of their caring.
We need to look and listen in the scriptures for those words and those teachings: the ones that build up and honor people, that heal, that lead to greater justice, compassion and caring. Those are the kind of words and stories that Peter, James and John (in tonite’s gospel story) heard from Jesus. That is why they see him on the mountain between Moses and Elijah: great teachers, enlightened ones.
Tonight we are at the end of our Epiphany cycle of stories about Jesus’ journey enlightenment. He struggled to find it in himself, he struggled to find it in his tradition. He kept some parts of the tradition and let other parts go. It took guts to do that. It still does. Having an experience of enlightenment doesn’t make things easier, it makes them more difficult. Because once we recognize a lie, we are responsible for ending it, for denouncing it, and for telling the truth.