Tag Archives: Pharisees

The Heart of Jesus: Jesus Challenged Authority


“The Head of Jesus” by Warner Sallman (1941)

Now that I’m two weeks into it, I suppose that I should admit that in many ways this particular sermon series pretty much comes down to one question: “What was Jesus really like?”

And I suppose that I should also confess that I realize that probably most of us here probably feel as though we already know the answer to that question!  After all, this is Jesus Christ we’re talking about here; not only the person who is at the very center of our Christian faith and everything we believe, but also one of the most – if not the most – prominent and familiar figures in all of human history!  So in that sense, it would be hard not to recognize who Jesus is and what he represents.  And yet… we also need to understand that though we all might see Jesus, that doesn’t mean we all see him in the same way!

For instance, if you grew up going to Sunday School your image of Jesus is apt to be as familiar as the paintings that always hung on just about every classroom wall:  a man with long, flowing hair, a face that was thin and handsome with skin milky white and beard perfectly shaped and groomed; this vision of a kind and gentle man with a reassuring presence who is almost always surrounded by attentive disciples, obedient sheep and children climbing all over him.


“Christ at Heart’s Door,” by Warner Sallman

Or maybe you ascribe to a more, shall we say, earthy image of Jesus: the man with strong, calloused carpenter’s hands; unkempt, wind-blown hair; dusty, sandaled feet and distinct middle eastern features, with eyes that are at once kind and yet pierce into your very soul; a man of true passion who could teach and pray, laugh and weep with equal intensity.

Or perhaps you’re one who prefers to see Jesus in more of a cosmic sense: with hands outstretched across the world and a sea of humanity, he who author Philip Yancey has described as “the One in whom all things inhere, [the One who is] the still point of the turning world.”

And there are others I could mention here, but if I were to take a poll here this morning, I’m guessing that there’s one image of Jesus that’s not as commonly held, and that’s the one of Jesus as Revolutionary.  This is Jesus who was the man those in authority regarded as a troublemaker and disturber of the peace; the man who scorned fame, family, property and other traditional measures of success; the man who, quoting Philip Yancey again, proclaimed a message “that was jarringly anti-materialistic, anti-hypocritical, pro-peace, and pro-love.” This was the man who spoke, acted and lived as a true revolutionary!

jesus-as-revolutionaryNow, I know this is not an aspect of Jesus’ persona that we “New England Congregationals” tend to think a whole lot about, but understand that this is a predominant image of Christ in many third world nations all over the world, and one held by a great many Christians who espouse the idea of radical social change!  I’m reminded of a poster I first saw a few years ago which actually was part of a very controversial church advertising campaign in the United Kingdom, in which Jesus was visually portrayed as a “spiritual revolutionary” after the manner of a Latin American freedom fighter.  It was a truly radical approach (and it was for Easter, no less!); even the caption set people on edge (“Meek? Mild?  As if.”), but it all pointed to this image of Jesus, who in proclaiming the Kingdom of God,  openly, actively and passionately challenged authority in his time… and, as it turns out, in ours.

The fact is, if you look throughout the gospels you will find several occasions when Jesus did, in fact, offer some very sharp denunciations of what was happening socially, culturally and yes, even politically in first century Palestine.  But here’s what’s interesting, and why it’s good we look at this: because what you find is that Jesus reserved his most scathing words not so much for their Roman oppressors (although that’s definitely there), but rather it’s for the religious establishment of his time; specifically for its leaders, “the scribes and the Pharisees!”

What we read this morning from 23rd chapter of Matthew is actually a very small part of what is sometimes referred to as “the seven woes,” in which Jesus literally rants on just how far that leadership had fallen; painting this vivid picture of a people whose profession of faith had become totally disconnected from the lives they were leading and warning against “a barren religious life [that featured] all of the outward signs but none of the inward reality.”  It is, to say the least, a bold and passionate “calling out” of these people who were supposed to represent the gold standard of the faithful life, and whose authority ought to have been paramount; but there’s certainly nothing “meek and mild” about Jesus saying again and again, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

Of course, the irony of this is that actually, Jesus believed in what the Pharisees were supposed to be doing!   We tend to cast the Pharisees in wholly a negative light, but that’s a misconception: historically speaking, we know that the Pharisees were those who sought to live out their faith in God with the highest standards of spiritual purity and strict adherence to Jewish law; and in fact, were considered to be good, solid, religious leaders of their time.  And even Jesus says that the Pharisees “sit on Moses’ seat” – that is, they are qualified to teach the law – and because of this you should “do whatever they teach.”  But don’t do what they do, Jesus goes on to say, “for they do not practice what they teach!”

The problem, you see, is that over time, many of these Pharisees had become corrupt and apathetic to their faith, violating the very law that they espoused by their actions and their attitudes.  They tended to set themselves above the good of the temple; they sought power for its own sake, and did everything they could to curry the favor of an audience, even in how they dressed!

This is what Jesus was talking about when he said that the Pharisees made “their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”  Phylacteries were small leather boxes containing verses of scripture that were actually worn as an article of clothing, and were meant to remind them of God’s word and to keep it near to their hearts, but which for these Pharisees served as merely another way they could show off to everyone just how incredibly good and faithful they were!  Likewise, there were fringes on the edges of the Pharisees’ prayer shawls, also meant to be a sign of devotion; but more often than not was used as a means to impress; this would be like if I decided to wear this robe of mine while shopping at the supermarket!  Friends, short of my offering up a blessing upon the vegetables in the produce aisle at Market Basket, there would be no earthly reason for me to wear my robe down there except the desire to be seen by others!

This was exactly the kind of thing that what was happening amongst the temple leadership, and Jesus challenged that authority.  But don’t misunderstand; Jesus did not do this for the sake of being a rabble rouser.  Jesus’ heart was such that he knew that faith was more than merely following the rules; he knew that leadership is a gift and faithful leadership is not about self-promotion or glorification, but about being a servant to God.  Jesus understood that true servants do not seek the glories of this world, but seek to help others see the glory of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven!  Jesus knew in his heart that God’s righteousness is only to be found in a life solely lived in God’s love.  Or to put it another way, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And honestly, friends?  That’s about as “revolutionary” and as radical a stance as any one of us can ever take.

I know that we’re sorely tempted to apply a text like the one we’ve shared today to the Pharisees of our own time and place; you know, the smarmy TV preachers, the firebrand Church leaders whose characters don’t match up to their lofty words, the denominational rule keepers and so on.  It’s so much easier to assume that Jesus is challenging them but certainly not us!  But if we’re truly to see the heart of Jesus here, then we can’t avoid the conclusion that Jesus is in fact challenging the authority of any one of us who would seek to walk the walk of faith for all the wrong reasons.  And that’s difficult, because the truth is that many of us are far more “Pharisaic” than often we’re willing to admit!

The wonderful Ann Weems – the Presbyterian worship leader, poet and author – has written that as Christians and particularly as church people we do have the tendency sometimes to “play Pharisee,” “more interested in the Sunday morning count than in the feeding of [the] sheep, more interested in stars for our crowns than in the cup of cold water, more interested in tradition and appearance than in the following of our Lord.”  She goes on to say that we often guilty of “playing at church” while “making excuses about the real thing,” putting God off and finding countless reasons for not following Jesus. In short, writes Weems, we have too often forgotten that our Lord is “the Lord of Life.”

Now, years ago in a different sermon and another context, I quoted from that particular piece from the pulpit; and I remember this because the very next day I was confronted by a woman from my congregation who very angrily suggested to me that I should not have done so!   I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she said; and I don’t appreciate the intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner.  Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right!  I want to leave church on Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and feeling as though in the midst of everything in this life I might just be a little bit better than everybody else!

Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her I appreciated her honesty and was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could reflect on it all a bit longer, and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be… well, warmer, and fuzzier.

Honest; that’s what I actually said to her; but I think that now, all these years later, I can confess to you that what I wanted to say to her – gently, of course, and with all Christian love – was this:  Do you even know Jesus?

Because however we see Jesus, what we have to know is that Jesus is the Lord of Life… he is the Lord of our life! And as Weems wrote in that same piece, “Jesus was into life in such a way that either had to follow him or resent his attempt to bring you change.  That’s still who he is,” she concludes, “someone who’s going to make you see yourself if you have ears to hear.”  Jesus will always challenge false and misguided authority; most especially when you and I succumb to the notion that this authority belongs to us.

This is the heart of Jesus, beloved; and may we truly have ears to hear and eyes to see within that heart the radical, revolutionary nature of his power and love.  And may our faith, and indeed, our very lives become a vibrant expression of what it means to follow such a living, loving Lord!

And as we do, may our thanks be unto God!


c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Getting It Right

PianoHands(a sermon for October 27, 2013, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 18:9-14)

“No, no, no!  You haven’t got it right!”  So says the exasperated piano teacher to his young student.  “You just haven’t got it right!

Actually, it’s the same thing he says every week.  It’s not that the kid isn’t doing what he’s told: he’s holding his hands on the keyboard the way he’s been taught; his fingering on the piano keys is exceptional; his sense of rhythm impeccable!   And what’s more, the boy has memorized the assigned piece perfectly, hitting all the proper notes flawlessly and with deadly accuracy.  It’s just that for all this technical perfection, the end result has revealed all-too-clearly that the kid’s heart is simply not in it.

Oh, he’s playing a sort of music, alright, but it’s not the kind of music that will start voices singing or set feet to dancing.  In fact, all he’s really doing is boring everybody, including himself!  So the teacher says it yet again: “You haven’t got it right,” because he knows that if this music was played the way it’s supposed to be, with heart and feeling, spirits would soar and there wouldn’t be a still foot in the house.  But here goes the kid again – 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 – with a performance that’s full of method but absolutely no magic!

Actually, when you think about it, the Pharisees were a lot like that.

You see, as religious leaders in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees believed that righteousness was simply a matter of “getting it right;” that in following every law, statute and tradition exactly to the letter would be found the key to their salvation.  And to their credit, they worked very hard at this endeavor: they were, in fact, amongst the most learned and spiritual men of their time.  They knew the law backward and forward and were thoroughly devoted to following that law perfectly; to the point of excluding anything or anyone who would get in their way of doing so!  In fact, it was said at the time that you could always recognize a Pharisee by his black eyes and bruised face; this was because he was so intent on preserving his own righteousness that as he walked down the street, he’d refuse to even look at anyone who might interfere with his quest for perfection.  So he’d close his eyes while walking along; and consequently smack right into walls or tumble into ditches!

The reality was what with so many confusing and contradictory laws in the Jewish canon, to say nothing of their very humanity, there was no way these Pharisees could ever achieve the perfection they were seeking.  But like the frog in the fable, so intent on the glory of his own reflection in the pond that be became oblivious to the world around him, not only had the Pharisees failed to see the futility of their quest, they’d also become rather self-righteous about the effort!  Simply put, the Pharisees were satisfied to revel in the abundance of their own imagined goodness!

So… when it happened that Jesus was talking to some people who, as Luke puts it, “trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” the Pharisees provided the perfect object lesson!  His parable is a study in contrasts; pointing up the difference between two men, both of whom, we’re told, “went up to the temple to pray.”  The first is, of course, the quintessential Pharisee; whose words at the temple are less a prayer than a loud and pompous tribute to his own importance: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” followed by a litany of his own self-perceived righteousness: “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Basically, these were words designed to remind everyone within earshot just how much better he was than everybody else within earshot; most especially the tax collector who had quietly slithered into the far corner of the temple that same morning.

Now, if it could be said that this Pharisee had done everything “right” as concerned the law, then it should also be noted that this tax collector had surely done everything wrong.  As people in his profession at the time were wont to do, this Jewish tax collector had likely conspired with the Roman government against his own people. He’d probably made a comfortable living pilfering money and crops from his neighbors, and had lined his own pockets with much of the largesse due the Roman magistrates.

Moreover, here was a man who’d probably never, at least not voluntarily, set foot in the temple in his adult life.  He’d certainly never tithed nor fasted; for him, the temple had always been a place – and a truth – he’d actively sought to avoid. But now things were different. Perhaps he’d begun to see the damage he’d done, the pain he’d caused by his own actions.  Maybe that morning he’d looked in the mirror and suddenly realized what he’d become – sinful and unrighteous and unworthy of any forgiveness – and the truth of it was more than he could bear.

Whatever it was, he’d come to the temple that day to pray: trying not to be seen, his own eyes fixed to the ground; feeling so worthless that he can’t even bring himself to lift his eyes unto God!   In fact, all he can summon the wherewithal to do is to beat fist upon chest and cry out in anger and shame, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  No fancy words, no eloquent prayers, no spiritual rationalizations nor legal bargaining; just a simple and completely heartfelt confession.

Funny thing about God, Jesus says to them.  Given the choice between a Pharisee who does faith with all order and correctness, and a sinful tax collector who does it from the heart, God will justify the tax collector every time!   Like the piano student we spoke of earlier, the Pharisee knows his technique and plays all his notes correctly, but there’s no real music there; it’s all style over substance, verbiage as opposed to truth: religion without the faith.  Try as he might, he just can’t get it right!

The tax collector, on the other hand – uneducated, unsophisticated, and as openly sinful and utterly despised as he was – was getting it right: placing himself wholly in the love, care and forgiving grace of God.  No deals made, no litany of empty promises, no assumptions as how God might respond; just a singular moment of prayer and utter humility before the Lord without pretense or any false sense of self-attained righteousness.   It’s faith… the kind of faith that leads to true righteousness; that is, in humility as opposed to the sort of self-involved blustering exhibited by the Pharisee!  As Jesus himself puts it, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I love this parable; and I must confess that after several weeks preaching on all the subtle nuances found in the Statement of Faith, it’s refreshing to sink our teeth into a story that’s so beautifully direct and to the point!  I mean, after all, in just a few scant verses Jesus not only calls out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he also manages to turn any distinction we might make between saint and sinner upside down and inside out!  This is the kind of text that just begs for us to make some comparisons to the “Pharisaically Correct” of our own time:  you know, the smarmy TV evangelists, the holier-than-thou “pew sitters” in the congregation (remember Dana Carvey’s character of “The Church Lady?”  That’s the type!), the smiling Christians with the ready backlog of convenient moralisms that apply to everyone around except for them!  Truly, it’d be very easy to start pointing fingers here; except that the trouble with such finger pointing is that, like most of Jesus’ parables, this one has a disturbing way of pointing back at you and me!

You see, truth be told, a lot of us are more like the Pharisee in that story than we might realize; like them, we too work very hard at “getting it right” where life and faith and righteousness are concerned.  I suspect that’s – in part at least – what brings a lot of us to church on a Sunday morning: this inner desire we have to get a handle on how faith ought to fuel the course of our daily lives.  And that’s not a bad thing; our being here today ought not to be some casual or un-considered act, but rather an intentional effort to address the challenges of lives lived in devotion to Jesus Christ.  By our worship we are strengthened and empowered to do all the good and “right” things that faith requires: “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (!)” doing all these things joyfully and for the right reasons; and, might I add, feeling good for having done so.

And that’s all well and good; except that if we hear what Jesus says to us in this parable, it’s clear that what we should be doing is forgetting all the “good” we’ve done, hit our knees, and pray with all our hearts for every bit of mercy we can get! That’s the truth found in this parable, friends; it’s a wake-up call for any of us who figure that righteousness can be achieved solely by following the golden rule. Forget the exaltation of your “doing unto others,” says Jesus; for such self-exaltation can only lead to humiliation. What we need to understand… first… is that we’re each and all sinners in need of God’s mercy.  It’s only by being humbled in that knowledge that we can ever hope for the exaltation we seek!

Now, does Jesus mean for us to walk around with eyes cast downward, beating our chest in self-humiliation?  No, I don’t think so; after all, by the grace of God in Christ we are forgiven of our sin: we are not meant to live life as martyrs of unworthiness!  But I do think that what Jesus means for us to understand in this parable is that righteousness before God comes down not to all that we we can do, but rather to what it is we can’t.

It’s our human condition, beloved; that we’ll do everything we can in this life to gain acceptance and love, healing and wholeness, peace and salvation, and yet ultimately come to discover that we cannot do it all. Hospitals, institutions, prisons and graveyards are filled with people who thought they could do it for themselves; people who trusted wholly in their own righteousness, people who went to absurd lengths to achieve it and yet failed every time.  It’s a hard truth, but within it is found good news: that it’s only the grace of God that we are justified and redeemed; only by God that we are lifted beyond the mire of sin and guilt and isolation to be shown what true love and true life really is.  It is God, and God alone, who brings us to righteousness.

Oh, make no mistake, we are still called to do the work… we still follow the laws… and we strive to walk the walk of the righteous.  And that’s because in faith, friends, there’s a song that needs to be played; a song with its own very unique melody, rhythm and rhyme.  Now, if we were to, say, sit down at the piano to play this song by ourselves, I have no doubt that eventually we’d get the chords and the notes worked; and we might even manage to do a verse or two on our own – but for all the effort, I can tell you that it still won’t be right… that it won’t be music.  We need God to help us get it right; we need to let God be the second set of hands on the keyboard, so that when the music starts, voices will sing, feet will move and hearts will soar.

And what a song that will be…

Thanks be to God who joins us in the music.


c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


Posted by on October 27, 2013 in Jesus, Prayer, Sermon


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