If there's anything this political season has given us--aside from a national case of (I'm assuming) what feels like incurable gout--is crystal clear insight into the degree to which we as individuals, political parties, and faith communities are willing to sacrifice others on the altar of our respective interpretations of what it means to be American in the 21st century.
In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of Luke we happen upon an exchange over dinner between Jesus and what the text calls "teachers of the law" or "Pharisees".
“And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them."
Now, regardless of your history (or lack thereof) with the Bible, you have likely come across the term "Pharisee" before, and if I'm assuming rightly, it probably wasn't used politely.
Pharisaical is what we say when a tone-deaf politician works his or her way to the microphone in order to tell us all how they're the only thing protecting us from predatory lending, ISIS, and soon coming apocalypse. The word means "hypocritical and self-righteous" if you weren't picking up on the incredible amount of subtext in my last sentence.
The only problem with reading our popular understandings of what it means for someone to be pharisaical into the 1st century Biblical context greeting us in Luke's gospel, is that it ignores who the Pharisees were, why they were, and what they were trying to accomplish, however misguidedly.
During the time of Jesus, Pharisees were the religious institution of "the everyman/woman". They sought to protect the identity, purity, and orthodoxy of the Jewish establishment, which was currently awash in a sea of power hungry religious elites (the Sadducees) carrying out the desires of the highest bidder (namely, the Roman Empire), and paranoid client rules (namely, Herod Antipas). After the Maccabean revolt of 167 BCE (didn't think you'd read that phrase today, did you?) when the Jewish people threw off imperial rule for a brief time between the waning days of the Seleucid empire and the rise of the Romans, a power vacuum was created that allowed for the Jewish kingdom and the high priesthood to be sold to the highest bidder. After the Romans quickly vanquished all opponents in the region, they soon found a local infrastructure in the Levant (a non-political term for Palestine/Israel) willing to carry out the wishes of the most powerful empire the world had known, even if those wishes involved destroying the people of Israel and their faith.
Now, in order to retain his place at the top of the food chain, Herod Antipas created a system of taxation that allowed him to build a capital city in the region (Caeserea) with a man-made lagoon and a towering statue built to honor the Pax Romana of Caesar Augustus (get it: Caesar = Caeserea). This taxation fell mostly to the Jewish peasantry (almost 98% of the population in the 1st century) who were then forced to mortgage their own ancestral farmlands to wealthy absentee landlords, and saw them thrown into debtors prison repeatedly for missing payments and crop requirements while they farmed the very land their grandparents used to own for other people.
On top of civic taxes, the Sadducees leveled Temple taxes that were so high that when excavators working in the 1970s uncovered an ancient apartment owned by a prominent Sadducean family near the Temple mound in Jerusalem, they uncovered a bottle of wine in the cellar worth a modern equivalent of somewhere close to $1000.
So, what does all this have to do with the Pharisees?
Chiefly, because the Pharisees were so concerned with the kinds of toxic power grabbing parading as religion in the 1st century, that they took to the streets and began preaching directly to the people in order to start a revolution of character and morality (among the 98% percent) that would right Israel's political, theological, and eschatological trajectory for the better.
Which doesn't sound all too dissimilar from the work of Jesus, except that when he finally sits down to a meal with this group of idealistic zealots, seeking the redemption of Israel and Israel's God, he doesn't quite join up:
“Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves,a which people walk over without knowing it.”
He then finishes with the line I quoted earlier:
“And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them...Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
The problem, I would argue, with the focus and thrust of what the Pharisees were doing in and amongst a people angry, scared, hungry, and longing for an alternate vision of what the world can and should be like, is that it was, according to Jesus, focused on the behavior of the 98% to the neglect of what it was actually like living under the reign of the 2%.
Inherent in the Pharisaical message of political and theological redemption, was the rather popular idea that a "pure faith" or a "pure morality" would finally gain God's favor and restore God's interest in caring for and raising up the nation of Israel (which heretofore God had been rather absent). It's why the Pharisees condemned impoverished farmers (forced to work on the Sabbath or to raise pigs) because they violated the Torah with the only work they could find. It's why they encouraged the lame, the sick, the leprous, and the limping to make their way out of town, because people with those kinds of afflictions are enduring the punishment of God already, and muddying the waters for the rest of us. It's why they carved out an entire profession of traveling scholars and teachers who (rather than working with their hands like the rest of the nation) took the tithes and alms of the poor as payment for sermons reminding the 98% that God will ignore them until they are able to practice their faith like the religious professionals before them.
Enter Jesus, "God in the flesh".
I can't help, but be drawn into the way he completely dismantles a group of earnest (yet misguided) religious insiders by attacking not just their hypocrisy (although he does that pretty sharply), but the inherent backwardness of their whole theological enterprise; as both then and now, there is a rather popular idea circulating that teaches us that the difficulty of a particular truth makes it all the more truth-y.
If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Meaning, that if something is decidedly unpopular or exceedingly difficult to achieve, then it must be that much more important to God and to God's people. The burdensomeness of one's faith is often the way in which we determine the validity of that which a person believes. However, for Jesus, the goal or purpose of faith isn't found in the way it cripples us under the existential, economic, and physical weight of believing, but instead in the way it frees us to self-disinterestedly love and serve the world, independent of whether or not the world loves and serves us back.
So, the next time someone informs you that "sorry, truth is hard to hear" or "love is a cop-out for people trying to avoid consequences and hard work" remind them that God-in-the-flesh reserved his strongest words for religious folks who dedicated their lives to sacrificing the mistakes and missteps and tragedies of others on the altar of their "difficult and unpopular truth".
"Truth probably isn't truth if it requires the death of someone other than yourself."
If you've been operating under the assumption that conviction requires you to make pronouncements about the lives of other people (most of whom are just struggling to make it) in order to restore some idea you have about God redeeming your country or your church or your faith, you are now invited to simply: "be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you."
And, to be clear, the poor have a rather nasty habit of showing up in my life as both Republicans and Democrats, as gay and pro-life, as urban and rural, as highly-educated and folksy rather than just really deserving people who've already been vetted for possible drug use and a lack of tattoos. The point of life isn't to place burden on top of burden on top of burden to everyone struggling around you to make it in order to feel unburdened by comparison (like when I hear straight white Evangelicals talking about how gay folks and black folks should live their lives, or when I hear educated progressives talking about how poor white folks in Middle America should live theirs). Wherever we find ourselves sociologically or geographically, most of us are just trying to make it, and the point of faith in the Jesus-style is that it asks us to band together by throwing off unhelpful and rather weighty beliefs we may have about God, the Bible, and the Remington Bolt Action Shotgun, in order to free up a bit of bandwidth to say yes to the Incarnation and Resurrection awaiting all of us arguing with one another about the direction of our country and the place of our religion in it.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden, light.
Faith is only faith, when it opens its hand to the world freely because it actually trusts that someone or something else is responsible for the outcomes and the punishments and the rewards.
Faith is love that embraces whoever it meets, because faith actually trusts that someone or something else is responsible for the outcomes and the punishments and the rewards.
Faith is hope that whispers "you aren't alone," even when it gets so dark outside you aren't even sure anymore who you're whispering it to because faith actually trusts that someone or something else is responsible for the outcomes and the punishments and the rewards.
In 2006 Scott Harrison founded charity:water in order to answer a question he encountered for 30 years leading up to 2006: namely, how a life so unburdened by financial, relational, and occupational stress could be so burdensome?
In his own words after meeting thousands of people with curable, water-borne diseases as a "stowaway" on a Mercy Ship traveling the coast of Africa delivering medical services to some of the most remote villages on Earth:
"I fell in love with Liberia- a country with no public electricity, running or water or sewage- Spending time in a leper colony and many remote villages, I put a face to the world's 1.2 billion living in poverty. Those living on less than $365 a year- money I used to blow on a bottle of Grey Goose vodka at a fancy club. Before tip."
That "love" he mentions has resulted in clean water for 6,000,000 people, what could your love lead to?
When all of us band together, despite the weightiness of our respective "truths," we become capable of speaking "real" truth to any and every death-dealing political establishment (from school boards to the Senate). Because "real" truth is embodied, incarnate, sacrificial, and resurrected fidelity to the idea that no matter who you are, who you love, where you work, and where you went to school, you and I have the divine rattling around inside of us.
So may you, during this incredibly nauseating and politically divisive time in our nation's history, be greeted with the rather un-burdensome truth reminding all of us that we have God's eyes and nose, so go easy on those struggling around you to make sense of things. Oh, and when you have the chance to lighten someone else's load (whether existentially, theologically, or physically) take it, rather than adding to it, because you might find yours gets a bit easier to carry in the process.
*photo credit: charity:water