Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Humanity Of The Pharisee

(Originally posted June, 2007).

Surprise! I do have internet access! Aspen is freakishly beautiful, and freakishly expensive. My.

Anyway. The conference has been terrific so far. Lots of good questions, some which don't really have answers. But I have been mightily impressed by the warmth and kindness of the scholars, both Jewish and Christian, even when they are wrestling with difficult realities and questions.

I thought I would post for you the sermon that I preached yesterday at HappyChurch. I'm not sure it's my best effort, but it speaks to some of these issues. Let me know what you think.


Text: Luke 7:36 - 8:3

How many of you have seen the film “Gandhi”?

If you have seen it, you know that there is a section in the film which depicts a series of non-violent actions to protest the British tax on salt in India. For Gandhi, the British control of and tax on salt was a violation of Indians’ rights as well as their humanity. Even though salt was abundant upon the shores, and Indians could have gathered it themselves for free, the British colonial rulers declared that only the British could produce salt, and only the British could sell it; anyone else would be arrested and put in jail. The salt tax became symbolic of all the violent ways the British Empire controlled its colony.

The scene I am particularly thinking of comes after Gandhi has been arrested and jailed. His fellow leaders decide to march to the British salt works in Dhrasana and attempt to non-violently shut it down. You see vast numbers of Indian men, dressed all in white, gather not far from the factory gates. Women are there too, but stay off to one side as the men begin to line up. In front of the gates are a few British military officers, with orders to keep the salt works open no matter what. A few lines of soldiers stand in front of the gates, with long truncheons.

The leader of the Indian protesters marches the group close to the gates. He reminds the men to have courage, and to remember their commitment to non-violence. And then they begin to walk towards the gates, rows and rows of silent, white-garbed Indian men.

As the front row reaches the gates, the British officer gives orders. The soldiers raise their heavy, steel-covered sticks, and bring them down on the heads and shoulders of the unarmed protesters. The men crumple to the ground, their white clothes stained red. The women come running to carry them away and tend to their wounds.

And then the next row steps forward, with the same result. Row after row, beating after beating. In the film, the beatings are shown for only a few minutes, but the editing makes clear what is historically true: that the beatings went on for hours.

The brutality of the soldiers’ response proved to be a turning point in the struggle for Indian independence. After this, the salt laws were changed and negotiations for independence were taken more seriously.

At this point you are probably wondering whatever in the world this story has to do with the reading from Luke this morning. And I’m getting to that.

This past week I took a class called “The Art and Ethics of Strategic Peacebuilding” with a brilliant and kind ethicist from the University of Missouri – and I’m not just saying that because she asked me to send her this sermon!

On Thursday – a few days after I began my study on this text from Luke – we watched this clip from “Gandhi,” of the march on the salt works and the resultant beatings. When the clip was over, the class sat for a few moments in stunned silence. Dr. Welch then invited us to share our thoughts, observations, feelings, and students talked about the Indian mens’ courage, how the action succeeded in showing the overall brutality of the British Empire’s colonial rule, even if they didn’t succeed in shutting down the salt works.

Then a quiet voice – OK, it was me – tentatively spoke up. “But...the soldiers weren’t British. They were Indian, too. The soldiers beating the Indians were Indians, too.”

This troubled me for several reasons, including this one: The soldiers wee, in a sense, trapped, between the Indian protesters and the British officers. Empires and oppressive regimes are brilliant at this game of using the locals against their own people, so that the ones who are actually in charge don’t have to get their hands dirty – or bloody, for that matter.

One of Gandhi’s main principles was to remember the humanity of the oppressors. And as someone who values Gandhi’s non-violent practice and who tries – not always successfully, but I try – to live non-violently in the world, I am hesitant to offer any critique.

But I want to know: The cause Gandhi and his followers are fighting for is just, but what about the humanity of the soldiers? What about their transformation? What about their liberation? What about forgiveness for them? What about grace for them? Perhaps this is in Gandhi’s plan elsewhere, but it was not in the clip we saw. What about the soldiers, trapped in the middle?

These are the same questions I had after reading today’s text from Luke. Here we have what on the one hand is a beautiful, sensual story of a woman who weeps over Jesus’ feet and is forgiven for her sins, whatever they may be. Every commentary I read focused on the woman, speculating as to what her sin may have been – we often assume that she was a prostitute, but that may not have been necessarily so – noting the gratitude expressed in an extravagant act of love, and commending her for recognizing Jesus who welcomes and forgives and loves everyone.

But those were not my questions of the text this week. My questions were not about the woman and her sin and her forgiveness. My questions were about Simon, the Pharisee, the host of the dinner party that the woman interrupts.

In the same way that the commentaries focused on the woman and how she “got” Jesus’ message, the commentaries focus on Simon as the Pharisee who doesn’t get it. But I have to admit I’m not satisfied with that.

Because if we take the story at face value, we have the sinning woman who is forgiven for her sins. But Luke also not-so-subtly implies that Simon is also a sinner, because he judges both the woman and Jesus, and apparently completely misses Jesus’ point about forgiveness and love. The story ends with the woman being forgiven. Which is great.

But what about Simon? What about forgiveness for him? What about his humanity, his transformation, his liberation? What about grace for him? The story ends, and Simon, the Pharisee, is not forgiven.

I suppose you could say that Simon isn’t forgiven because he hasn’t realized what his sin is. And the way Luke tells the story, that’s appears to be true. Simon is silenced, left alone in the narrative as unrepentant.

The problem is, in its history, the church has taken stories such as this one, in which Pharisees seem to reject Jesus, or represent the antithesis of what Jesus preached, and twisted them into reasons for scapegoating, isolating, ghetto-izing, expelling, torturing, and even killing Jews as perpetual rejecters of Jesus. Believe me, please, when I tell you that it is a disturbing and harrowing thing to trace the history of antisemitism in the church from seemingly simple stories like this one down through the centuries right into the railroad cars of the Holocaust. The line, though sometimes bold and sometimes faint, is constant. I see that history, and I struggle with texts like today’s reading from Luke.

Thus, my questions. What about Simon? Do we really think that the Jesus we know and love, who we claim welcomes all and loves all and forgives all, would leave Simon in the lurch? Walk away without offering him the opportunity for grace? Is there any way to tell this story, and interpret it, which grants Simon his humanity?

It was watching the clip from “Gandhi” that helped me begin to see this text in a different way. At the salt works, the Indian soldiers are caught in the middle of the protesters and the British Empire. The soldiers are pawns in a system in which they have little control.

It’s not quite the same, but I think Luke uses Pharisees like Simon as pawns. Luke is writing with an intention: to convince the Roman audience that Jesus-followers are not a threat to the Roman Empire, that essentially they are like good Roman citizens. His reason for this intention is a good one: to stop Jesus-followers from getting killed by the Empire! But in the process, blame for “threatening” behavior (meaning rebellious towards the Empire) gets shifted onto Jews in general, and Pharisees, often, in particular. Luke catches Jews in the middle.

Which, historically speaking, is strange. Because of course in Jesus’ lifetime, there was no such thing as Jew and Christian. They were all Jews, with different groups having different ideas about what it meant to be faithful. Sometimes those groups had heated discussions with each other, and that comes through in all the gospels, not just Luke. Eventually, the Jesus-followers go their separate way, but that takes a long time – a few hundred years, actually, and the split was not always pretty. One of my seminary friends says that reading the New Testament is often like reading one side’s story of a very messy divorce.

Right after church today I am heading for Aspen for a conference on post-Holocaust theology and spirituality. Since the Holocaust, theologians and religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian, have been working together to find ways both to explain historically what led to the Holocaust, and to assure that such an atrocity never happens again.

One way to do that is by looking at texts like today’s with great care and attention, with the best of what we now know about the history of Christian origins. We can remember that both Jesus and Simon were Jews. We can remember that even if it were so that Simon doesn’t ever get it, he is not a stand-in for all Jews in all of history, past, present, and future. We can remember that we ourselves are inclined to respond to the woman much more like Simon than we’d care to admit, and so condemn Simon at our own peril.

And we can imagine that while Luke may end the story with Simon silenced, the real story – whatever the real story was – may not in fact have ended there.

Imagine this: Simon and Jesus are doing what two Jews do: They are having a meal together at Simon’s house. When the woman enters, Simon raises an eyebrow, but being a good Jew he does not throw her out; he knows that hospitality means leaving your home open during dinner parties so that the poor – which the woman likely was – could eat the leftovers. Jesus notices the raised eyebrow, and engages Simon in a typical Jewish practice, of parables and questions. Jesus’ point is to remind Simon of what it means to be a Jew, a Pharisee: to welcome strangers and friends alike with gracious hospitality and love in the name of the Holy One. The repentant woman is forgiven. Luke’s story walks out the door with Jesus.

At this point we are still within the bounds of the story as Luke tells it. But can we imagine a little more? Can we imagine Simon, left behind, thinking about what Jesus said to him, and allowing himself to be transformed? Or maybe even before Jesus left – I find it hard to believe Jesus just abruptly getting up and walking out, don’t you? – maybe he and Simon kept talking on into the night, talking about how extravagant hospitality is a sign of God’s beloved community. Maybe, just maybe, Simon was forgiven, too. Maybe, at the break of dawn, Simon was able to sing whatever was the 1st century version of Amazing Grace*.

That’s what I’d like to imagine. Not Simon the Pharisee as a caricature, as a scapegoat, but Simon the Pharisee with his humanity intact, a person prone to making mistakes, but also capable of recognizing those mistakes and asking for forgiveness.

Kinda like us, if you think about it.


*We sang Amazing Grace after the sermon. Have you ever noticed that Jesus is not mentioned in that hymn?