Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

I get the sense that Jesus didn’t like religious people very much. Every now and then on the walk to church I’m struck by the amusing thought that, to read the Gospels, this seems like just about the only sure-fire way to incur God’s wrath. No kidding: here are some of the things Jesus said to the pedantic zealots and petty ideologues in the houses of worship where he preached.

You talk a big game about virtue but you’re really just cowards and deadbeats (Matthew 23:2-4). You’re like painted graves: shiny on the outside, rotten on the inside (23:27). You’re less holy than a cheap whore (21:31). If you’re not careful you’re going to wish you were dead (18:6).

And that’s just according to Matthew. This was a man who embraced contagious pariahs and petty criminals, but he had hardly so much as a kind word to say to his equivalent of churchgoers.

I do think there’s a catch, of course, or I wouldn’t be a churchgoer myself. Symbolism and ritual are the only vessels we have for carrying the heart’s longings, the only language that can capture our ‘sighs too deep for words’ and make visible what we ‘see through a glass darkly’ (Romans 8:26; 1 Corinthians 13:12). Tradition is how we keep that language intelligible across generations. So in the end religion, or something that looks a lot like it, is the only way for us to speak to each other and ourselves about the things that matter most.

But that demands an answer to the question, ‘what are we saying?’ Is our creed a distillation of our core principles, or is it yet another set of slogans for gaining access to yet another exclusive club? Are our ceremonies physical enactments of our lived encounter with indomitable love, or are they elaborate dance moves that we’re glad we (and not that other guy) know how to do? And again I ask myself as much as I ask you: do you hang that crucifix around your neck as a reminder that you owe your life to grace you didn’t earn? Or is it just the spiritual version of a college sweatshirt, a sort of badge you wear to prove you’re ‘one of us’?

Jesus relentlessly insisted that people worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’ — that they ditch their obsession with the outward form of that worship and set their hearts on the reality towards which it points (John 4:24). It’s everywhere from his rejection of unthinking, formulaic prayer (Matthew 6:7) to his citation of Hosea’s prophecy — ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13). Now in his last days on Earth we find Jesus spending what must have been hours of his increasingly precious time berating these clueless fanatics yet again (Matthew 23).

But actually, you don’t put that kind of effort into haranguing people unless you genuinely feel it’s profoundly important that they get their heads on straight. Jesus, I think, hates bad religion not because religion is worthless but because it’s so worthwhile. Since ritual is uniquely capable of expressing the truth of God, it is therefore also uniquely capable of distorting that truth. The temple leaders merited Jesus’ time because at that point they had the power, not only to reject God’s kingdom for their own sorry selves, but to slam its doors in other people’s faces too (Matthew 23:13).

I frequently hear Christians (myself included) saying that Jesus was ‘very frustrated’ with the spiritual leaders ‘of his day.’ And that, my friends, is what in theological terms you call ‘a cop-out.’ As if Jerusalem’s high priests are the only sacred authorities who ever prided themselves on keeping the riff-raff out. As if Jesus doesn’t have words every bit as harsh for people like me who call him ‘lord, lord’ (Luke 6:46-9). Small minds and short sight are most certainly not the special purview of Ancient Middle Eastern Jews. When Christ implores believers to lay aside their liturgical schedules and their purity laws and just look, for God’s sake, at the wounded outcast right in front of them — those words are for us, too. God grant us ears to hear (Luke 7; Matthew 12; Mark 3; John 8).

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Jesus tended to align himself with the radical prophet Isaiah — right from the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4. As it happens, I’m in the middle of a full translation of Isaiah’s prophecies, which should be ready before the year is out. For now, here are a few selections from it -- my rendering of some astonishing warnings by Isaiah about religion gone wrong. 

Isaiah 1:11-20; 9:13-10:4

‘What good are your sacrifices to me?’ says God. ‘I’m stuffed full of offerings: goats and milk and fat cows, and bull’s blood, sheep and rams. I take no pleasure in them.

When you come to show yourself before me — who asked for that from you? To trample my courtyard?

No more: stop bringing worthless gifts. Incense is vile to me. New moons and sabbaths, congregations gathered: I can’t bear corruption and pious assemblies.

Your new moons and your meetings: my soul deplores them; their weight is crushing me and I’m tired of carrying it.

So when you stretch out your palms I’ll veil my eyes from you. Even when you multiply your prayers, you’ll get no audience from me. Your hands are full of blood.

Wash. Get pure. Get the evil of the things you do out of my sight. Let go of evil.

Learn how to make good. Hunt after justice. Lift up the downtrodden. Give justice to orphans. Fight the widow’s corner.

‘Come here,’ says God, ‘let’s talk this out together. If your sins are scarlet red, they’ll become like snow. Even if they flush like crimson, they’ll turn white like wool.

Consent to listen, and the best the land offers will be your food.

But refuse and resist, and you will be food for the sword. God’s mouth has Proclaimed This Thing.

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God cuts the head from off of Israel, and the tail too — the palm frond and the reed, in one day.

Elders and dignified men: these are the head. Prophets teaching lies: these are the tail.

The ones guiding this nation are the ones leading it astray, and the ones being guided are the ones being devoured.

That’s why my Master takes no joy in their finest men. He has no room in his heart for their orphans and widows, because they’re all decayed and rotten; every one of their mouths proclaims gibberish. In all this his anger doesn’t turn away, and still his hand reaches out.

Because depravity blazes like a devouring flame. It eats nettles and thorns, ignites the close-packed forest — smoke coils high.

The earth is charred black by the fury of God with his Legions, and the food of the flame is the flesh of the people. No man shows his brother mercy.

On the right they’re tearing off hunks in their hand, ravenous. On the left they’re eating but they can’t get enough. Each man is eating his own offspring’s flesh.

Manasseh eats Efraim and Efraim eats Manasseh. They’re united against Judah.

Oh, declaimers of worthless decrees, writers of burdensome writing, oh,

(which turn the needy away from arbitration and strip justice away from the poor among my people — so widows are their plunder, and they rob orphans blind),

What will you do to meet the day of reckoning and the devastation coming from far away? To whom will you run for help, and where will you leave all that abundance of yours?

Nothing left for you but humiliation among the subjugated, and downfall among the slaughtered. In all this his anger doesn’t turn away, and still his hand reaches out.