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Diocese of Charleston Bible Study + November 2, 2016

Philippians 2:24-30
Luke 11:42-46

Phillipians 2:24-30 (NKJV)
But I trust in the Lord that I myself shall also come shortly. Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful. Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.

Luke 11:42-46 (NKJV)
The Lord said, "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like graves which are not seen, and the men who walk over them are not aware of them." Then one of the lawyers answered and said to Him, "Teacher, by saying these things You reproach us also." And He said, "Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers."

Commentary 

The Pharisees are, in the minds of many of those who have heard the New Testament, the prototypical villains. So much of what we read in the Gospels and from St. Paul, who once numbered himself among them, is so critical of the Pharisees and their way of life, that we might think them a group that was malignantly evil, plotting always secretly against everything good. This is, in truth, not the case. If one understands who the Pharisees were in their day, in their particular time and place, they were in fact, the 'good people'. They were the ones seeking to follow God's will as they understood it. They were the ones who were serious about their faith. They were the ones who were educated in the doctrine of that faith and were responsible for teaching the people. This truth is present even in the parts of the Scriptures which are most critical of them, such as in Matthew 23:2-3: "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do. But do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do."

This is at the core of the criticism of the Pharisees in the Scriptures. Not that they were evil, or set out to do wrong or rebel against God. Rather, they said, and at least publicly, did all of the right things. They paid lip service to what is holy and pure and good. But they were hypocrites. They were representative of all of God's people in the Old Covenant, who honored Him with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. To make matters worse, while they at least partially understood the problem that stood between God and His people, they did not understand how He was acting right in front of them to solve that problem, and reconcile humanity to Himself.

What was painfully obvious to the Pharisees, as to all of the Judean people, was that the exile into which the people had been taken by the Babylonians some 600 years before had never truly come to an end. Yes, some of the people had been able to again take up residence in Judea, but they lived there not as a nation with a king appointed by God, in a land given to them by God, but rather as a group of slaves, living on land owned by Rome, and abused by Rome. Further, the Glory of God that had once filled Solomon's temple had left that temple shortly before the Babylonians destroyed it, and had not been seen since, despite the temple having been rebuilt, enlarged, expanded, and beautified in the meantime. They also knew the core issue at hand. They had been exiled in the first place because of their sinful wickedness, and disobedience to God, and so they concluded that their continuation in exile must be the result of their continuation in sin.

The problem with the Pharisees came in the way in which they sought to overcome the problem of sin. In seeking a way of making themselves righteous before the Lord, the Pharisees returned to the Law of God in the Torah. They believed that if only all the people of Judea would return to following the regulations of the Torah, God would return to them and free them from bondage to a foreign oppressor as He had once before, long ago, in Egypt. The problem came because no amount of regulation keeping, no amount of following of customs and traditions and rules, can restore the damage that has been done to our humanity by disobedience. The more thoroughly we experience and understand God's perfect holiness, the more thoroughly we know that we have sinned, and fall under the Law's curses, and not its blessings.

What the Pharisees missed was the God, in the person of Jesus Christ, was working among them in a new way. Rather than commanding the people to be good, or to be holy, or to walk before Him in righteousness, God was working to take humanity up out of the mire into which it had fallen. He was working to make people good, to make them holy, to make them righteous. This meant that He was not concerned, primarily, with finding those who were the 'least guilty' before the Law. Nor did he care about finding and rewarding the 'good people' for their 'goodness'. Rather, Christ came specifically to call sinners to repentance. He came to purify a people from their unholiness and to thereby make them a people who were holy and set apart. He was not primarily concerned with ending the exile of just the Judean people from a strip of land in Palestine, but the original exile, that of our first parents from Eden.

The Pharisees cut themselves off from the love of God in two ways. First, they judged others by a standard, set by themselves, to which they themselves couldn't achieve. They saw in others not just sin and wickedness, but also blame. It was they who were dragging down God's people, by their very existence, for not properly living their lives as the Pharisees saw was right. Secondly, because of this false standard, they were unable to see that they themselves had unclean hands; that they themselves needed to be washed clean. They failed to receive the forgiveness, cleansing, purification, salvation, and reconciliation to God offered by Christ because they did not think that they needed it, and they did not think that others deserved it.

In order to find their lives in Christ, the Pharisees would have been forced to humble themselves. St. Paul himself was a Pharisee, going so far as to persecute the Church of Christ, until Christ Himself intervened and humbled him physically and spiritually. His life's work disrupted, knocked down, bruised, and blinded, St. Paul finally saw himself truly, and realized just how far away his life had travelled from the pathway along which the Lord had called him to walk. Further, in the face of the reality of his sinfulness, he knew that no amount of wearing tassels of the proper length on his garments or not eating pork and shellfish could repair what was broken in him, and his broken relationships with God and those around him. St. Paul embraced Jesus Christ and the salvation which he offers to all the world when it became apparent that only Jesus Christ could fix what was broken.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, true love, true joy, and true peace are found only in Him. We cannot achieve them on our own by following a code of conduct, even one in the Scriptures. Only by humbling ourselves and admitting what it is within us that needs to be cured can that cure be received. Only when we understand that the first one to fail before the standard by which we judge others is we ourselves can we give up on such a standard, and freely receive the blessings which Christ lavishes upon each and every one of us, and be worthy of them by being thankful for them. Only when I accept that I am the bad person in a world of the blessed can Christ begin to heal and reshape me into the person whom He always intended for me to be.

Questions to Ponder

  1. St. Paul understood that though he had received a special calling from God as an Apostle, he could not accomplish that, or any other work, alone. This didn't only mean that he needed the Lord's help, but also that he needed the help of his fellow followers of Jesus Christ, both in the congregations he helped establish, and his fellow workers in the Lord's vineyard. Do you see your life in Christ as a team effort, supported and assisted by your fellow parishioners, your spiritual father, and your faithful friends and family? Do you find yourself, over and over again, attempting to go it alone? Do you refuse help and support from others because you believe you can handle everything yourself? Do you open up to your fellow believers and speak about your struggles so that they can assist and support you? 
  2. Jesus does not criticize the Pharisees for their outward obedience, but for the fact that their outward obedience is not matched by the inner disposition of their heart. We have many cultural saying such as 'Its the thought that counts', but as Christ points out, we must possess inner righteousness and the love of God, as well as outward obedience. Outward obedience is valuable only when it flows from obedience of spirit. Do your outward actions match the feelings of your heart? Do you do things like giving to the church, giving your time to help others, and serving the poor cheerfully? Begrudgingly? Not at all?
  3. The Pharisees were the 'good people' of their time and place. They followed the Law of God to the letter, often with great show. They prayed publicly and made a point of appearing pious and just. They dressed and acted differently from their fellows to let everyone know that they were those who followed God. However, they all too often did all this without any love for their neighbor or humility. Do you find yourself playing dress up and putting on a mask when you're at church events or around fellow parishioners? Do you spend time and energy trying to be, or at least appear to be a 'good person'? Do you find yourself judging other people not on the content of their character and their actions, but on how well they fit in with yourself and other 'good people'? Do your pastor, your spiritual father, and your Christian brothers and sisters know the person who you really are? It is that person whom you really are for whom Christ died, that you might be saved.

Questions or Comments? FrStephen@stgeorgecharleston.org

Note from the Author – No rights reserved. If you find anything good, or helpful, or worthwhile in these Bible studies from week to week, feel free to take and use it as you see fit. I do not need credit.


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