The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran

Reading Lesslie Newbigin’s appraisal of how history is interpreted in various religions got me to thinking. Newbigin’s point was that Christianity, as opposed to the religions of Hinduism or Buddhism, views history as a linear concept – there was a past, there is a present, there will be a future. The eastern religions tend to view history as cyclical, as repetitive. Humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The only way out is to empty oneself so totally as to achieve “oneness” with the total, the complete, the one. For Christianity, history as we know it has a purpose, a goal, a telos. For the eastern religions, history is meaningless, there is no “point” to history.

Newbigin’s point is well taken, and as he spent many years in India, he should be well educated about the difference between Christianity and Hinduism. But reading his argument got me to thinking – how do you fit the despair of Ecclesiastes into the “history is linear with a goal at the end” viewpoint? Doesn’t the writer of Ecclesiastes stress “whatever has been will be, there is nothing new under the sun?” It is an interesting paradox.

Which, after a long and convoluted conversation in my mind (which will not be recounted here), got me to thinking about the difference between the Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Qumran covenanters, sometimes referred to, although not perfectly identified with, the Essenes. Each of these three groups are, in their own peculiar way, a manifestation of what we would refer to as “Conservatism.” That is, unless I am just horribly mistaken. This leads to some interesting connections to today (ergo, my lead-in with the “history as linear vs. cyclical” conundrum.)

The Sadducees were conservative in that they were entirely comfortable with the status quo, and did not want anything to disrupt their grip on the religion and piety of the people. As stewards of the temple cultus, the Sadducees had carved out a level of peace with the Roman invaders, and while they might protest the Roman occupation on a surface level, they knew that the Pax Romana also guaranteed their place as power holders in the Jewish culture. Thus Caiaphas’s view that it was far better for one man to die than for the people (i.e., Sadducees) to lose their place.

The Pharisees made their conservatism manifest in a much different form. If the Sadducees were concerned about the status quo of the present, the Pharisees were concerned about preserving a view of the past. Theirs was a legalistic conservatism, built upon a strict interpretation of the Torah. They were the stewards of the synagogues, and as such, did not necessarily conflict with the Sadducees as much as just come from a different foundation. The issue with the Pharisees was not a political alliance with Rome, but a spiritual purity that really had no specific relation to politics. In other words, they were not so much concerned with their political relationship with Rome, as they were their obedience to a literal and historic interpretation of the Torah. As long as Rome recognized their independence, they had no quarrels with the empire, and probably were quite pleased to live under the protection of the Pax Romana.

The Qumran covenanters (whether they were Essenes or not), were conservatives of yet a third stripe. They represented the escapist, the monastics, the “hunker and bunker” mentality of conservatism. They were so convinced they were the “righteous remnant” (a view probably shared by both the Sadducees and the Pharisees!) that they felt they had to leave the corrupt world and escape to a safe place where only the most pure could dwell. They lived in as much isolation as they could achieve, and we know about them only through their writings, which although are numerous, are equally shady,  difficult to decipher, and open to a multitude of interpretations. They utterly rejected the self-seeking conservatism of the Sadducees, and they were equally dismissive of the antiquated conservatism of the Pharisees. They viewed both as cultural traitors and their faith as compromised. The only response was total, complete, and uncompromising withdrawal from both of these “secular” forms of the faith.

So, is history cyclical? Now, I am not a Hindu or Buddhist, but there is something about these three groups that is alarmingly contemporary. Which, I believe, confirms the truth and wisdom of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. History is linear – there is a point, there is a goal, there is a telos. But, equally, there is nothing new under the sun. Life is not cyclical in that we are in an endless loop of birth, life, death and rebirth, but humanity is remarkably dull and unimaginative when it comes to issues of ultimate importance.

Take modern conservatism, for example.

There are voices in the church that are clearly Sadduceean. They just want to “get along.” They do not want to ruffle any feathers, because they have made their peace with the political powers. They fear that if there is any turmoil they will “lose their place.” So desperate are these people that even when culture shifts in totally bizarre and unimaginable ways (witness the increasing militancy of the gender-fluid protagonists), they willingly go along with these cultural shifts so that they will not be stripped of their political, and outwardly religious, authority. Scripture is constantly being reinterpreted so that whatever “is” is blessed by God, and no one, especially of the Sadduceean mentality, is capable of challenging the cult of progress.

The ancient Pharisees have their modern counter-parts too. Chained to interpretations of Scripture that have not changed in decades (if not centuries) these folks are not so concerned with political power as they are religious power. Every jot and tittle is counted and measured, and if any word or deed conflicts with tried and true understandings, the new teaching is immediately labeled a heresy and the guilty is expunged. The specific topic of the modern-day Pharisee might vary, but the biggest issues today seem to be the only acceptable translation of Scripture, the literal (and specific) age of the earth, and how the worship service of the church is to be conducted. Related issues such as church architecture and proper decorum are never very far under the surface. Mint and dill and cumin are carefully counted and God’s tithe is duly given, but justice and mercy and righteousness are largely ignored.

Finally, the Qumran covenanters have their fair share of modern followers, too. These folks are, just like the Sadducees and Pharisees, devoutly conservative. So conservative, in fact, that they cannot stay in to day’s raucous society. They leave, even if only mentally while they physically stay put. They build their little enclaves of spiritual purity, and the cost to join them is high, if it is attainable at all. These enclaves usually die out after a few generations (as did the Qumran covenanters) because that level of perfection cannot be maintained by many or for long. However, another enclave will usually spring up to take their place, and this, the most rabid form of conservatism, will never truly fade away.

Looking at today’s religious conservatives I really commiserate with the author of Ecclesiastes. There really is nothing new under the sun, even while history moves inexorably toward it’s final end. This is why I think the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus for sure, would be so disappointed with today’s church.

We are not called to be Sadducees and form alliances with our pagan and paganizing culture. We are not called to be Pharisees and look back to some gilded age (which never existed in reality, anyway) and try to live up to a legalistic interpretation of the Bible that “neither we nor our fathers” were able to attain (to borrow a quote the apostle Peter). And, we have certainly not been called to become modern day Qumran covenanters, abandoning our role as being salt and light to a bent and broken world.

We are neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran. We are the church, the assembly, the people of God, the body of Christ. Let us ascend to that reality!

In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT  violating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.