Church of the Incarnation
Lent 2: Are you a Pharisee?
One of my favorite people I’ve encountered in the Church is now a Coptic Orthodox priest in Toronto. I met him initially because his congregation rented space in our church building for worship. The thing about this priest that struck me foremost was his humility and his kindness. Alone, these things would have been admirable. But then I learned his story from one of his parishioners. This priest had, until a short time ago, been a top neurosurgeon at Sick Kids Hospital, quite well known. One day I was talking to him and asked him what made him leave medicine: the prestige, the intellectual challenge, the substantial salary, elite colleagues.
“You nailed it,” he said. I was confused. “Those things,” he said, “they are why I left.” “Say more,” I replied. And he recounted Jesus’s temptations in the desert to me and said, “yes, I made really good money. Yes, I literally held people’s lives in my hands. Yes, I worked with the top people in my field and could have had anything I wanted.” And yet working in that environment with my eyes and the eyes of my colleagues too often set on those goals, sucked dry the fruit of God’s mission in my life. I got sucked into their ways, their arrogance, their presumption to be God and I allowed the things of this world to become my focus and my measure. And I simply could not bear that any longer. “I had to set my eyes on the true Jerusalem and not listen to the Pharisees’ false concern for my welfare, when really, they were afraid that my faith might point to the truth of how the world really is.
I’ll never forget that conversation. It was one of the most transformative moments I had as an infant-like Christian, still apparently needing milk rather than solid food as Paul put it to the Corinthian Church. For indeed in our Gospel from Luke this morning we hear the Pharisees warn Jesus about Herod’s plan to kill him, but of course this warning would seem pretty inconsistent with the way the Pharisees usually treated Jesus. It seems more likely, given where this story falls in the gospels, that the Pharisees wanted to distract Jesus from his mission that included teaching, healing, casting out demons and overcoming the evil that they worked on people, miracles that would heal people not just physically, but spiritually, and worst of all for the Pharisees, a growing group of followers.
And the Pharisees should be worried. Jesus declares in verse 32 that he is “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and he’s not going to be done this work until tomorrow.” In chapter 11 Jesus says, “if it is by God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.” So we know that Jesus’s mission, marked by these healings and casing out of demons, is to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. This very sentence points beyond its immediate context though.
Three days would have been a familiar time for all Jews who knew the story of Jonah coming up out of the whale on the third day, “you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas and the flood surrounded me:” from death to life; rising out of the watery grave on the third day, recalling humanity’s salvation on the Ark.” The Pharisees would have caught Jesus’s clever language here. Language that suggested Jesus’s claims to be the Son of God come into the world to reconcile it to God was true. And sure enough, we know that that simple sentence is fulfilled when Jesus goes to the Cross on the first day, remain in the belly of hell on the second, and rise from that grave of death, drawing the whole of humanity up with him; gathering them like a hen does its brood, even as that brood turns away time and time again as the Jews and new followers of Christ so often did.
The time then is immanent. The kingdom is here. How do you stand before God? Lent isn’t a triumphalist time for Christians. Don’t forget, as Paul puts it in Romans: “you Christians are only grafted into the root through adoption so be careful that you do not fail to produce good fruit from this grafting (paraphrased).”
Jesus certainly takes a shot at the Pharisees, but then this warning also extends to us as Paul has many occasions to point out. Jerusalem is “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” Jerusalem is of course the place where God chooses as “his habitation to put his name there” (Deut 12:5). The fact that it is this place of God’s habitation that becomes the place of his ultimate rejection serves as a warning not to fall to the temptation to reject not merely a place (a city, a temple, a church) but God himself.
So ultimately here, Jesus challenged the Pharisees, the Jews, his own followers, and you and I: I have brought the kingdom to you in me, will you step into it or get distracted by the temptations of worldly things: power, money, prestige, or the stuff that lies under why we go after these things: fear, fear of dying, fear of looking foolish, insecurities, arrogance, envy, the need for certainty, for being right, the need to be needed and wedded to a purpose we carve out. Where are you right now in God’s kingdom? Are you like the Pharisees, fearful of not only following but of embracing, and then sacrificially sharing God’s life and so your time, talents, possessions, kindness, gentleness, humility and self control? Where is God drawing you right now and in the weeks to come, to take up your cross? God is gathering you like a hen does her brood. Will you respond? AMEN