A Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, October 10. 2019
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 4:1-6 – The Gospel, St. Luke 14:1-11
- The Pharisees.
The Pharisees appear often in our gospels, but seldom are they portrayed in a favorable light. In today’s gospel, Jesus has been invited to dinner by a Pharisee on the Sabbath Day. The religious leaders in charge of this feast are said to “watch” Jesus, looking for a reason to criticize him. Jesus, for his part, tells a parable that attacks the behavior of these leaders and their invited guests. It doesn’t sound like a very restful Sabbath meal.
Ironically, of all the New Testament Jewish groups, the Pharisees were theologically closest to Jesus. They believed the right things, but they did not always do them. As Jesus said in Matthew 23, “The scribes and the 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” (Matt. 23:2-3).
Who are the Pharisees? They arose a distinct religious group in the time between the Old and New Testaments (between 450 BC and the first century AD). The legalistic attitude associated with the Pharisees is often connected with the Old Testament. However, the were no Old Testament Pharisees. The main religious problem in the Old Testament was to ignore the Torah and mix the worship of the Lord with various pagan practices.
The Old Testament prophets warned Israel about laxity, pagan practices, and also about the nation’s tendency to trust in the military protection of other nations rather than trusting the living God of Israel. Ultimately, Old Testament Israel’s unfaithfulness led to a national catastrophe; the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC., and Israel went into exile in to Babylon.
The attitude that come to characterize the Pharisees arose as Israel returned from exile to rebuild the temple. As religious leaders reflected on the causes of God’s judgment, they were determined that would never happen again. They become known for their zeal for the Torah and for the tradition that developed around the Torah.
The tradition was developed to guard the Torah. It defined Torah observance more precisely. For example, the Torah says, “Keep holy the Sabbath Day.” The tradition listed the specific things you could and could not do on the Sabbath. The Torah does not forbid healing on the Sabbath, but the tradition came to define Sabbath healing as “work.” Jesus never criticizes the Pharisee’s Torah observance. Rather, he criticizes the way their practice of the tradition served to miss the main point of the Torah—like refusing to help a sick person.
The Pharisees believed that if Israel was zealous to observe the Torah, God would vindicate Israel and restore Israel to prominence among the nations. This belief was understandable but erroneous. St. Paul, the converted Pharisee, highlights the error. After his conversion on the Damascus Road—after his encounter with Jesus—he realized that human zeal for the Torah was insufficient to fulfill the intent of the Torah. As he said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No amount of zeal can overcome the reality of sin. St. Paul explains that the Son of God became man to fulfill the Torah for Israel—and for everyone. The Torah highlights our sin and leads us to Jesus Christ., who saves us.
- The Error in the Gospel and its lesson for us
The Pharisees’ zeal for the Torah blinded them to the presence of Jesus, the Messiah. They argued about the Torah with the very Messiah the Torah points to and they claimed to be looking for. The legalism of the Pharisees reflects a tendency of human nature that is present even in non-religious people. It can be seen, for example, in situations where people insist on enforcing the rules of the club or organization when such enforcement unnecessary harms people and does not really further the goals of the organization.
Traditionalist Christians are tempted to fall into some of the errors of the Pharisees. The pattern is the same. In response to false belief and practice that has led to judgment on the church, we become zealous for the faith once delivered to the saints; then we develop various traditions that guard and enshrine that faith; then the traditions gain such a heightened importance that they actually come to work against the foundational principles of the gospel. Being caught up in doing things the “right way” we miss the presence of Jesus and call to love.
The message of the Risen Christ in Revelation to the first century church in Ephesus is letter traditionalists need to hear again and again. The Risen Christ says:
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Rev. 2:2-4).
The first love of the church is always a two-fold expression of love. Love for the Christ and love for others, especially for the members of the Body of Christ. As St. John says, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also (1 Jn. 4:20-1).
III. Seeing Jesus in worship and in others
The most striking features of today gospel is that the Pharisees care more about their opposition to Jesus than about a man who is suffering from a disease. They are practicing a faith that actually forbids a man to be healed! The invited guests are so concerned about where they are going to sit to gain honor that they miss presence of the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel—they try to sit in higher places than him!
Like the Pharisees, we have a tradition. Our tradition is a good thing. It teaches how to approach the altar and reverence the presence of Christ. It teaches us how to confess our Trinitarian faith. It teaches us when to make the sign of the cross and when to bow and genuflect. It teaches us how to receive the sacrament at the altar. But we must never confuse the means with the end; we must never focus so much on the details that miss the presence of Jesus.
Thus, as we gather for our holy meal on the Lord’s Day, as we follow both the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of our tradition, let us never lose sight of the main guest as the feast, or of the people for whom he died that we are called to serve. Let us never leave our first love.