Jesus, the Pharisee?

One of my responsibilities these days is representing the Diocese of Chicago on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. This is an interfaith organization that has been around for decades and works to see how faith communities can stand together around issues in our city like gun violence and poverty and education. One of the founding members, who still attends meetings regularly, is a 96 year old rabbi named Herman Schaalman.

Herman is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emmanuel (same name as your church!) on the north side of Chicago. He served there for decades and worked with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and our own Bishop Montgomery and many other religious leaders who were early pioneers in interfaith relations.

One of the things Herman never tires of reminding us is that Jesus was a Jew! In fact, Jesus was not only a practicing Jew, but he was a Pharisee. Maybe not a card carrying member of the Pharisaic party, but he was actually closer to them than to the other parties in 1st century Judaism.

We get the idea that Pharisees were the bad guys, but the reason Jesus gets so angry at them and the reason they are mentioned so often is that they were actually the more progressive, “reformist” party in town to whom Jesus probably felt closer than he did to the Sadduccees or the Zealots or even the Essenes. The reason he got so frustrated with them was because he thought they ought to know better!

We perhaps need no further reminder that Jesus considered himself an observant Jew than the conclusion of our Gospel reading this morning from Matthew. This gospel writer emphasizes even more than Mark or Luke or John the “Jewishness” of Jesus and, in today’s reading quotes Jesus as saying:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until it is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

So, Jesus was a supporter of keeping the Law of Moses. But, like any good rabbi, he was not above re-interpreting the common understanding of a particular law. Later on in this same 5th chapter of Matthew, he enters into a long discourse in which the recurrent phrase is “You have heard it said (in the Law)….but I say to you…” In these statements, he seeks to go the core of a Law’s meaning. And to see what it’s really all about.

Jesus also stands directly in the line of Jewish prophets like Isaiah who were not above challenging the religious establishment’s understanding of the Law with powerful preaching like we heard in our First Lesson today. Isaiah was taking on certain pious attitudes toward fasting, and he says:

You say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see (O God) Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…”

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:3 ff, passim)

I know that you at Emmanuel, Rockford for more than 30 years have taken words like those seriously in ministries like your Soup Kitchens, and the Shelter Care Ministries, and the Jeremiah Development.  And you have done that because you believe that you are following Jesus in doing so. And so you are!

But even Jesus was following in a long line of fighters for justice and peace among his people, Israel.  You and I, as Christians, will claim a lot more for Jesus than our spiritual forebears, the Jews will. But, at the very least, we will claim for him an honored place among the great prophets, teachers, and martyrs of the Hebrew tradition.

That place is at least a starting point for dialogue with our Jewish, and even our Muslim, brothers and sisters. They will honor our conviction that we believe Jesus to be, not only a prophet, but our savior and lord. As long as we honor our common heritage with them as children of Abraham, the ancestor of all who put their trust in the One God.

It’s an honor to be with you today, dear friends. To be with a Christian community that has sought to heed Jesus’ challenge to be salt for the earth and lights for the world. You have put your lamp on a lampstand and, as such, you have let your light so shine before others in this community, that they see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16). Soon you will begin a new chapter in your life together – with the arrival of your new priest – you just need to know how proud we are of you in this diocese. And we look forward to seeing just what the next steps in your journey will bring. It’s bound to be exciting!


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