Being Pharisaical About Being Pharisaical

October 29, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments

The other day, I came across an experiment.  It was conducted by a Christian guy named Timothy Kurek who, by his own admission, wanted to “shock the Pharisee out of himself.”  He had been raised with a quintessentially fundamentalist pedigree, even attending Jerry Falwell’s famed Liberty University as a college student.  But something in his fundamentalist upbringing proved profoundly unsettling to him.  So he left everything he had known and feigned coming out of the closet as a gay man to his friends and family in an effort to see how his Christian friends would respond to him.  Some were loving.  Others, sadly, but predictably, skewered him.[1]

As I learned about his experiment, I came to appreciate his moving and sometimes heart-rending experience.  What I found somewhat troubling, however, was his characterization of the Pharisees.  Tim spoke many of times of his “inner Pharisee” – this voice deep inside his soul full of accusations and vitriol.  By the end of his journey, TIm went from having an inner Pharisee to calling himself a “recovering Pharisee.”  Part of this journey seems to have included a radical change concerning his conception of sin.  He is not nearly so comfortable calling things that have been traditionally called sins, “sins.”  After all, this is what Pharisees do.  They talk way too much about sin.  And he doesn’t want to be like them.

This past weekend at Concordia, we talked about Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  The Pharisee, in Jesus’ telling, represents everything we have come to hate about these religious elites.  He comes across as arrogant, judgmental, and outright smarmy in the prayer he offers on the steps of the Jerusalem temple:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12).  This guy’s bluster is palpable.  Yuck.

Did I mention the irony is also deep?  Our reflexive response to this parable all too often sounds something like this:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other religious hypocrites – Pharisees, Sadducees, creationists – or even like those unenlightened, bigoted fundies who attend Liberty University.  I judge not and am smart enough to realize that my Christian witness to the world has to be nuanced and Huffington Post appropriate.”

Somehow, I’m not sure this is what Jesus intended for us to get out of this parable.

The problem with the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was not that he was religiously conservative, nor was it that he was concerned with sinfulness.  Both of those things are fine and, in many instances, even desirable.  The problem was that this Pharisee trusted in the wrong righteousness – his own.  Luke’s setup of Jesus’ parable makes this clear enough:  “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 12:9).

Sadly, many people see the road to killing their inner Pharisee as one paved by downplaying certain sins, thereby demonstrating themselves in-tune and in-touch with our culture’s zeitgeist.  But the road to killing our inner Pharisee cannot be paved in this way.  Indeed, Jesus Himself was quite comfortable with much of what the Pharisees said about sin and, many times, thought they did not understand sin deeply enough.  Just read the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or His discussion on human sexuality in Matthew 19:1-12 to see how seriously Jesus took sin.  Killing our inner Pharisee is not about redefining sin, but about killing sin by the cross.

So let’s stop trying to slay Pharisees by diminishing sinfulness.  That’s simply swapping one form of Pharisee-ism for another.  It’s swapping a religious self-righteousness for a cultural self-righteousness.  And that simply will not do.  For we do not need self-righteousness, we need Jesus’ righteousness.  Only His righteousness can cure a Pharisee and save a sinner.

Even a Pharisee and sinner like me.

[1] To learn more of Tim’s story, see Url Scaramanga, “Ur Video:  Straight Christian Lives as Gay Man,” (10.19.12) and “Timothy Kurek, Straight Christian Man, ‘Comes Out’ And Pretends To Be Gay For A Year,” The Huffington Post (10.13.12).

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. pillscoffeeheresy  |  October 29, 2012 at 5:36 am

    ” The problem was that this Pharisee trusted in the wrong righteousness – his own”. boom! great post

  • 2. revkev97  |  October 29, 2012 at 7:26 am

    Hi, Zach! The problem with the inner Pharisee is that he’s not all that “inner” for starters. We thus believe the Pharisee is in us by believing we can control our sinfulness, which you illustrate and define so well in your article.

    Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector are illustrative of this fact. You and I both remember being taught by well meaning folks that we should strive to be like the tax collector. If we’re honest, we’ll admit something: that’s the Pharisee in us talking.

    You nailed it, too. The way to deal with the Pharisee isn’t to acquiesce on sin (I think you termed it agreeing with the culture’s zeitgeist – I’d never come up with that wording, so I’m glad you did), but to see the sinfulness in ourselves. My former District President would say that the way to deal with the pride and arrogance of the Pharisee in me is Confession and Absolution.

    Great post!

  • 3. bob wetesnik  |  October 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Zach: once again, you hit the nail on the head. God bless you brother. Bob


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