The God of the Pharisees

It only takes a minute in the New Testament to figure out that Jesus has a heart for the poor, broken and oppressed. He repeatedly taught that those whom the world puts last will be first in heaven. He made it clear from the moment his earthly ministry began:

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21

As followers of Jesus, he directs us to be his hands and feet in the world:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27

But as I listened recently to friends lift this up this theology with virtual fists raised against the systems and structures that enable them, a paradoxical thought popped into my brain:

God is also the God of the Pharisees.

Sure, Jesus was hard on the Sadducees, Pharisees and tax collectors. But he also welcomed Nicodemus, Matthew and Zacchaeus into his tribe. As we get to know Jesus it’s easy to judge these powerful folks as the problem and to cheer Jesus on as he takes them to task.

But to do so misses an important point: We’re all sinners. And God’s desire is for all to be saved:

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

What if the problem lies not with the individuals so much as in the toxic effects of money, power, prestige, influence and other worldly riches on our sinful hearts? Who among us can claim with confidence that he or she could not be corrupted by instant power and fame? I’d rather not test it.

So what if Jesus was not thinking in just earthly terms when he claimed Isaiah’s prophecy? What if:

  • The poor also includes those who are rich by worldly standards,  yet impoverished in love and relationship with God?
  • Freedom for the prisoners also is meant for those imprisoned by legalistic, rule-bound theologies that carry the burden of self-reliance rather than surrender to God?
  • Recovery of sight for the blind is about reinstating the heart of a child in all whose spiritual lives have grown dry and brittle until they no longer see God with eyes of awe and wonder?

Jesus’ parting instructions were for us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. What if that’s also true when your neighbor is a Pharisee?

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

John 13:34

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