Long before Jesus began his ministry the predecessors of the Pharisees stood up against the Greeks who were demanding they embrace the gods of the Greeks and thus deny the one true God. In today’s gospel, just a few generations later, the Pharisees have lost sight of what it means to love God with all your heart, mind and strength. In fact, they have drifted so far away from following God’s will for them they were insisting Jesus was the one not observing the will of God. Why was it with all their learning and knowledge of the prophets and the law they could not see or recognize Jesus as the messiah God promised?
One would believe that of all the people of Jesus’ time the Pharisees would be the ones who would understand the prophecies all pointed to Jesus and rejoice because he was among them. Yet their slide from standing up for God to being the very individuals who would plot to destroy Jesus is a great lesson for us. It is a reminder how easy it is to pursue knowledge and strictly follow the outward signs of faith and miss the one who is the way, the truth and the light. Their pride in being perfect in practicing their faith shows how easy it is to be deceived in believing we can be faithful in the practice of our faith while our hearts are far from being centered on God.
You can read all about their history and their roots in love of God in Maccabees. At that time, 100 years before Christ, those faithful Jewish laymen chose to fight rather than abandon their faith and their God. The Greeks, who ruled them at the time, demanded they abolish all the law’s of God – cultural, moral and dietary along with all their traditions and follow Greek culture and religion. The book of Maccabeeians in scripture show how faithful laymen stood up for their faith and went to war rather than violate their belief in the One True God. These faithful Maccabeeians over the years that followed became the Pharisees, the protectors of the laws and traditions handed down by Moses.
What a reversal from “nothing will separate me from my love of God” to the laws becoming the focus of their desires in the span of two generations. That shift should cause us to wonder, can this happen to us? If you look at their history you will see a gradual drifting from their love of God motivating their actions to a point where they were not seeking God but were seeking to be recognized for their pious acts. This insidious slide away from loving God to loving the attention they received as pious followers of the law can happen to us. We do not wear phylacteries today but we do wear our religious practices as a badge of honor and puff up when someone applauds our faithfulness.
We are grateful when someone recognizes our efforts to serve our community and inwardly appreciate the fact our efforts are recognized. There is a key is to deflecting these desires for attention so we do not get puffed up. We can look to the example of Mary when Elizabeth exalts her. Mary’s response to Elizabeth is to give someone else credit when she humbly said: “my soul proclaims the greatness of God and I rejoice in God my savior for he who is mighty has done great things and holy is his name.”
The Pharisees believed they deserved all the adulation and honor they received because of their uncompromising adherence to the law and this consumed the Pharisees. It was their pride and hunger for recognition that caused them to drift from fighting for God to fighting for self esteem. I know this from my own ministry that this kind of spiritual pride can cause us to lose sight of our purpose to be servants and humbly serving where we are called to serve. It is easy to take a compliment for a sermon well done to become focused on desiring more and more praise and to be known as the best preacher of all the preachers.
It is that kind of self serving desire that moves us away from serving God to serving self. It is easy to get puffed upped with self importance and fail to understand that like Jesus we are called to be servants and not to be served. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus told us to wash feet. We like Peter should remember we have been given a gift and that gift needs to be freely and humbly given to serve God not to seek the praise of others.
Today’s gospel it is not about the Pharisees it is about you and I keeping sight of what our faith is all about. It can easily be a source of pride and self serving. Jesus is reminding us to keep our balance between service and humbly realizing we are blessed by a God who calls us by name and that is all the praise we need.