Lord, Make Me a Pharisee
Imagine yourself as a major fan of the Indiana Hoosier basketball team.
For most of you, that will not be a stretch.
Now, go bigger. Imagine yourself as a ticket taker at Assembly Hall.
Now, go bigger. Imagine yourself as a graduate assistant in the equipment department.
Now, go bigger. Imagine yourself as an assistant coach to the Indiana Hoosier basketball team.
You are sitting on the bench next to Head Coach Tom Crean during every game. You are strategizing and encouraging and celebrating as Williams and Ferrell and Hartman dominate from the paint to the perimeter every night.
You are extremely invested in IU basketball.
Your life revolves around setting them up to go deep in the NCAA tournament.
This could be your year! You could go all the way to the National Championship!
Now imagine, in your role as Assistant Coach, it’s the eve of the Big Ten Tournament, and you and your fellow coaches draw up all the plays and plans and strategies for your run through the tournament.
This is the set-up for the end of your entire breakout season, the season that has recaptured the glory of famed Hoosier Basketball, the season that has awakened Kansas fans like me to the fact that the road to the Final Four once again runs through Bloomington.
There is very tight security around your preparation for the Big Ten Tournament. Players and coaches alike know how important it is to not spill any secrets to the media or even family and friends.
Preparation in a monster conference like the Big Ten requires a military-style discipline and cohesion.
Now here comes the crazy part.
You arrive in Indianapolis for the tournament. Most of the teams stay in a one of a few hotels near the arena.
You hear that the Head Coach of Purdue basketball, Matt Painter, is going to be at such-and-such restaurant for dinner the night before the opening game.
Matt Painter and Purdue represent potentially a major threat to the end of IU’s season this year, not to mention being IU’s most hated long-term rival.
And then you, the assistant coach of the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, sit down at Matt Painter’s table and hand him IU’s entire tournament playbook.
He recognizes you and opens the book with disbelief as you start to take him through it, explaining to this enemy coach every single part of your team’s tournament strategy. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, all of it.
You’ve just betrayed the organization that has commanded your every shred of loyalty probably for your whole life, and alerted that organization’s enemy to your exact plans to defeat it.
WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!
That is exactly the situation we find ourselves in in our Gospel story today.
Herod, the ruler of Palestine under the Romans, is plotting to kill Jesus.
And who warns him of the danger?
A group of Pharisees.
Once again we ask, why would they do that?
Jesus is a dangerous thorn in their sides. He is a threat to the Pharisees’ power.
He is winning more and more of the common people, the Pharisees’ traditional base, over to his side.
He is preaching and teaching and healing and creating chaos at every turn.
He is a major threat to the Pharisaical order, because if he keeps pushing, he is going to bring the Romans down on all of them, and the Pharisees will be crushed right along with everyone else in Jerusalem.
The Pharisees have exactly zero rational motivation to warn their enemy of the danger he is in.
But they do. And so we have to ask ourselves why.
We have to try and put ourselves into their shoes to understand why they would betray the group that had commanded their loyalty their entire lives and set them up in positions of great power and learning, and to their understanding, enabled them to be obedient to God.
Believe it or not, the stakes are even higher than the Big 10 basketball tournament!
The Pharisees always get such a bad rap, and there we find our first mistake, a rookie mistake in the spiritual life: lumping people all into one monolithic group and assigning a big nasty stereotype.
The Pharisees were characterized in the Gospels as being slaves to the law, consumed by tiny details to such an extent that they become blind and cruel to actual people and their needs for fear of breaking a minute commandment.
It is possible that some, even many of them had gotten a little overzealous in their pursuit of holiness.
But was every single one of them a terrible person, out to harm others on purpose? Doubtful.
In fact, we have proof, right here in our gospel story.
Here we have Pharisees of a different stripe, embodying the very best qualities of their order.
The Pharisees who warned Jesus went to some risk to attempt to save his life.
They saw something in him that intrigued them.
Their thirst for holiness here provoked them to curiosity, exploration, discovery.
They were willing to listen to an outsider because they sensed he might have an important piece of the truth. And what they heard impressed them.
They might not be willing to sign up for a slot in the Twelve Apostles, but they valued Jesus and his teachings enough to reach across the aisle, as it were, and warn him that he was in danger.
This was a turning point for this group.
We don’t know how many of them there were. Two? Five? Ten? Probably a small group, let’s say three or four.
But this courageous action of theirs, warning a political enemy because they saw holiness in him unexpectedly, had important consequences.
In the very next chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes and eats dinner in the home of a leading Pharisee.
Because this small group reached out to him, Jesus has the opportunity to engage a wider group of Pharisees in theological debate. He then could intrigue and challenge them with his parables.
By the end of Jesus’ life on earth, his message has penetrated through this strict and determined group to such an extent that two of them become key supporters, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
It’s easy in our own time, so far away from Biblical events, to say, “Well, if I had been a Pharisee, I bet I would have been interested in Jesus and tried to save his life.”
We forget how vitally important the social and political divides were to the people in that day.
But bring it back to our own time. Would you give the IU playbook to the coach of Purdue?
Suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a great prospect.
But that’s the challenge of the spiritual life.
We have to go deeper, engage the very people we label as our enemies.
Whom do you label as your enemy right now?
Is it possible that person or those people have something to teach you?
When the Pharisees allowed themselves to recognize something valuable in Jesus, they opened themselves up to experience the riches of his teaching.
What pushed them into this situation to begin with?
Their spiritual curiosity.
And so perhaps that is a new and fruitful stance that we could take toward those we perceive as our enemies—curiosity.
Be a Pharisee. Take up their thirst for holiness and their unconcern for where they find it, even the most unexpected places.
Go out and engage the people you disagree with most, the people who frighten you, the people who anger you, the people who simply drive you nuts.
Your courage and curiosity could put you into a situation with them that allows you to see them in an entirely new light, a light that awakens within you the deeper human grace of compassion.
The Pharisees in our story today allowed themselves to be moved by compassion to a rebellious and revolutionary act, warning their enemy to save his life, and by doing they participated in events that would change the world.
Maybe even IU’s playbook would be worth giving away to help change the world.
Maybe even my pride, my comfortable labels of enemies and friends, my security, my social standing—I think I’d give a lot if I had the chance to really make a difference for good, to see the light spread and uplift the brokenhearted and oppressed.
And so I pray a strange prayer today.
Lord, make me as curious and courageous as a Pharisee.
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