So easy to become a Pharisee

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- This week our readings are all about the inadequacy of the law – Jewish law in the original case, but any other series of gentile laws too. Mere law obedience on our part can never put us in a right, a perfect relationship with God, whose salvation, or gift of him self is always and entirely a matter of divine activity and never of ours; his relationship with us is always one of purely gratuitous gift, the fulsomeness which only God can exercise. To think that we can win God’s favour by our acts of goodness is to totally misread matters. Our good deeds and behaviour are simply the only fitting response from creatures alert to the radical difference between God and ourselves and our right actions the proper response of those who recognise just how good God is to us. Our total inferiority to God is not something to resent or worry about, unless of course we think that he ‘owes’ us something, the mistake of Pelagians who believe like the Pharisees that we can win our right to eternal life in Christ. Our response to God’s gift of himself in Christ Our Saviour is simply the proper thing for those responding to Christ’s love to do as heirs of his and those promised eternal divinity with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is made abundantly clear in our reading from 2 Samuel.(12:7-10.13) David is king of Israel and Judah by God’s gift, and has all the power and wealth of that position at his finger tips but nevertheless he failed to keep the law – he lusted after Bathsheba, committed adultery with her and to cover up this first sin and its resulting pregnancy and breach of the commandments arranged for her husband, a loyal and faithful servant of the crown to be deliberately killed in battle and moreover forced the compliance of his general in this outrageous act against God’s law. Quite clearly, as St Paul was to point out, even those well informed, some even desirous of keeping the law fail, and never accomplish it, good intentions are never enough, as he himself realised, we are simply too weak and sinful.

This surely is the message of the Letter to the Galatians, (2:16.19-21) to Gentile Christians, converts from paganism who were being corrupted by Jews who insisted salvation was only to be found in full acceptance of the law and who made the grace and self gift of Christ into a small and insignificant matter. Paul is adamant that things are the other way round, it is the grace and gift, the incredible largesse of God in Christ which saves us and gives us the faith to live the lives of Christians, the law has failed, and it is a quite inadequate response and understanding of the entire Jesus event. We today of course see things differently, from a Pelagian viewpoint which is as equally misguided and dangerous as was that of Judaisers in Paul’s own day. Pelagius taught that “if perfection in humans is possible, it is obligatory;” meaning that our actions are of fundamental importance to salvation.

In our gospel (Luke 7:36-50) we see this message as an enacted parable. Luke has three great passages where Jesus dines with Pharisees, experts and those diligent in their observance of the Jewish law and all of them illustrate the futility of law obedience as the pathway to God. Here, dining in Greco-Roman fashion, lying on a couch with his feet up, the curious thing is that the wealthy Pharisee has gone to great trouble to put on a banquet to which Jesus is invited and then completely disregards all laws of ancient hospitality – neither providing Jesus with foot washing facilities or welcoming kiss of greeting. We can only assume the invitation was issued not from genuine friendship or regard but deliberately to offer a slight to Jesus, who, like many an ancient man was wide awake to the possibilities of patronage abuse as a studied insult just as they could be true marks of equality and real friendship, as we know from the Satires of the near contemporary Juvenal.

We get a reworking the of Samuel 2 story here: those who are best versed in the law, kings and then Pharisees, who prided themselves on fulfilling the minutiae of the law are shown up as its worst detractors and abusers. Just as David was shown up by Nathan the Prophet, so our Pharisee is exposed by Jesus. By contrast, the sinner woman is revealed as truly penitent, one who burns all her boats in her very public display of the recognition of the divine power of Jesus to forgive sins and thus his difference from us. This power Jews and Pharisees in particular believed was the sole prerogative of God himself normally only manifested by the High Priests in the temple sacrificial system. What we have in this vignette then is a radical revelation of Jesus’ identity. Equal of the Father, able, unlike the law to reconcile penitent sinners to God he is the only gateway to heaven and we in our age need to study the implications of this story from the viewpoint of our inflated self importance and self sufficiency. Many Christians today are Pelagians to the core, modern Pharisees who think we can control God, and we can’t.

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