Rethinking Jesus (09) The Pharisees (ii)

The previous post outlined the origins of the Pharisees, and suggested that they and Jesus, in many ways, ‘sang from the same hymn sheet’. It also, however, outlined reasons for the antagonism that grew between Judaism and the ‘Jesus movement’, once it began to become the ‘Christian Church’, rather than a Jewish ‘sub-group’. This increasing antagonism, I suggested, was progressively ‘retrojected’ into the Gospels, culminating in the offensive anti-Semitism found in the Gospel of John. If we strip all that away, we are left with three respects in which Jesus’ approach to the Jewish Law, differed from that of the Pharisees.

Firstly, Jesus would have agreed with the Pharisees that God’s Law should be fully kept. He, however, drew a distinction between the letter and the spirit of the Law. The letter could sometimes be imprecise. No “work” was to be done on the sabbath, but what precisely counted as ‘work’ was nowhere stated. To ensure no Jew inadvertently broke that commandment, the Pharisees drew up lists of what, in their view, was, or wasn’t, allowed. The problem for Jesus was that a rigid application of such lists could prevent making food for a starving person, or seeking healing for someone ill or dying. 

For Jesus, love was at the root of the Law. Jewish people should love their God, and their neighbours as themselves. Love took priority over the letter of the Law, and demanded empathy and compassion in the face of human need and distress. I see this as a major insight, still too often lost sight of. There are religious people too ready to quote chapter and verse from their bibles, and apply these with insensitive rigidity to their fellow beings. And so women must continue to ‘know their place’, and be content to stay in it. Gay men and women must acknowledge their abominable ‘sinfulness’ and suppress or reverse their natural inclinations. The terminally ill must endure pointless suffering rather than being able to choose ‘assisted dying’. And so the list goes on. For Jesus, love took priority over lists.    

Secondly, and closely related to the above, Jesus drew a distinction between the ‘surface’ and the ‘deeper’ implications of the Law. Yes, it was necessary not to attack or murder another person, but a deeper understanding of the Law would lead to acknowledgement, and repudiation, of unacceptable anger in the heart. Likewise, as well as abstaining from adultery or non-consensual sex, a deeper understanding of the Law would lead to the recognition, and disavowal, of unacceptable thoughts. Were we all to have such understanding, and follow through on it, the teaching of Jesus would be then possess its intended radical bite, and make a profound, practical difference to the way life is lived in our world.

A third area of disagreement was around the observance of the “purity” laws. Purity wasn’t a moral, but a ritual concept. God, being perfect, could not be associated with imperfection. Priestly service in the Temple, for example, required immersion in water, and animals offered for sacrifice had to be “without blemish”. That sort of ‘purity’ has its counterpart in other contemporary cultures, but the Jewish Law differed in extending ‘purity’ to include the general population. What made people ‘impure’ included eating proscribed food, skin diseases, childbirth, and contact with the dead, menstrual blood or male ejaculate. Impurity had to be removed through prescribed water immersions and Temple sacrifices.    

Jesus, however, touched ‘lepers’ and dead people. He was unfazed at being touched by a haemorrhaging woman, and by being engaged in dialogue by non-Jewish women. He didn’t wash his hands ritually before eating, and was happy to sit at table with people who may well have been ritually impure, without apparently checking on that, or whether the food was kosher. Mark actually states that “he declared all foods clean“. He even applied his own spittle [!] to the eyes of a blind man, and to the tongue of a dumb man.

In this current UK secular society, we don’t have ‘purity rules’, but we do have social outcasts who are all too easily kept at a distance – single mothers, homeless people, the mentally ill, offenders, immigrants, LGBT people etc. Jesus would say they’re not the untouchables, the unspeakables, the unhelpables. They are as deserving of respect, attention, support and care as all other human beings. And all followers of Jesus should be heard to be singing from that hymn sheet.

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