Best of Daily Reflections: Walking Around in the Skin of the Pharisees
But the Pharisees and teachers of religious law said to themselves, "Who does he think he is? That’s blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!"
This is my second reflection on Luke 5:17-26. Yesterday, I tried to read this passage by "getting into the skin of Jesus and walking around in it," to borrow an apt phrase from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Today, I want to get inside the skin of the Pharisees.
In many of the Gospel stories, the Pharisees are pictured as the antagonists, and for good reason. They are often, though not always, disagreeing with Jesus and seeking to squelch his ministry of the kingdom of God. Yet the Pharisees did care about God, as they understood him, and sought to honor him in their daily lives. Moreover, they valued God enough to become experts in his law, both the written Torah found in the Bible and the oral Torah passed on from teacher to teacher.
When I read Luke 5:17-26 from within the "skin" of the Pharisees, I can understand why they found Jesus to be so troubling. On the one hand, he was like them in his conviction that God is to be part and parcel of everyday life. Moreover, he, like the Pharisees, stood solidly upon the monotheistic theology of Judaism. On the other hand, Jesus was getting many things wrong, terribly wrong. He seemed lax about Sabbath observance. He would share meals with "tax collectors and sinners," thus compromising his own holiness. But, worst of all, he did things that seemed to be outright blasphemy, like telling a man his sins were forgiven. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures. Thus, they knew that only God can forgive sins (for example, Isaiah 43:25). Their conclusion: Jesus must be a blasphemer because he puts himself in the place of God.
Ah, how close the Pharisees were to the truth about Jesus! Yet, even when Jesus healed the paralytic, a clear demonstration of God's presence in Jesus, they were still unwilling to consider the possibility that he was, in fact, much more than just a man. Jesus simply didn't fit the Pharisees expectations for how God would act. God would not heal on the Sabbath. God would not hang out with sinful people. And God would certainly not come to earth as a human being. Thus, the expectations of the Pharisees kept them from seeing the truth—better, the Truth—that was right in front of their noses.
I wonder how many times I do this very thing. I wonder how often I am so sure I know who God is and how God should act that I miss the real God and what he is really doing. I wonder if, even now, God is moving in my life in a way that I am simply not seeing because it doesn't match my expectations.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Can you think of times in your life when you missed (or may have missed) what God wanted for you because you clung to your expectations too tightly? How can we be open to the new thing God wants to do in our lives and, at the same time, be faithful to maintain an historic, orthodox faith? In what ways may God be moving in your life right now, ways that challenge you because they aren't what you expect? What would help you to be more open to God?
PRAYER: Gracious God, first, I must confess that I am so much like the Pharisees. I can care so much about getting things right that I can miss your presence and call. I can be so committed to my expectations for you that I am unable to see when you do something unexpected. Forgive me when I am stuck in my own understanding and need, so that I cannot respond to you.
Help me, dear Lord, to be faithful to you, to know you truly, to be open to your work in my life, even when it doesn't fit my expectations. Give me a humble, seeking heart . . . a desire to follow you no matter what you might call me to do. Amen.