Realizing that “I” am the Pharisee

I recall the first time it hit me, I am the pharisee in these stories!

Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

I recall the first time it hit me, I am the pharisee in these stories!

I always assumed that since the pharisees were the obvious antagonists in the gospels and the clear anti-Jesus people, that since I most certainly was a Jesus-person, then what did I have in common with them?

Then I learned that the pharisees weren’t necessarily bad people. They were earnest folks doing their best to live consistently with their convictions. They were trying to be moral in the best way they knew how. They had an idea of who God was and what God wanted, and they thought, if everyone else also could get on board then life would be better for everyone. They held positions of influence in their community and used their leadership to try and help others follow their vision.

Which is a pretty apt description of my life between the ages 17–27.

I believed I had God figured out. I believed I knew (most? all?) the right answers. I believed that having the right belief and being morally pure were the most important things. I had positions of leadership and authority that I used to convince others to think and act as I did. Looking back I can see how I let a single-minded commitment to belief and behavior blind me from seeing people for who they were: loved children of God, regardless of their beliefs or actions.

In short, I think my place near the top of the demographic hierarchy of my culture (ie, American, white, male, straight) and my ignorance of the world of the Bible blinded me from seeing some of the deeper truths.

As I’m learning, being different from culture’s dominant system or demographic will, by nature, grant unique insights that the majority might miss. When your lived experience is predominately defined by being on the outside, by being your culture’s “other,” you possess the capacity to see, hear, read, and comprehend things differently.

For example, my wife and I might watch the same movie and have totally different experiences, in part because many corners of our culture are largely created and controlled by the male perspective. As a result, she’s going to notice things I don’t, pick up on storylines I miss, and feel character’s interactions on screen differently. You can imagine, then, if you add more “non-dominant” layers to a person’s life (such as racial, sexual, or economic minorities, for example) it can introduce even more ways they might experience things differently than those groups who define the majority or who hold most of the power.

This phenomenon — where people at different levels of a society’s power hierarchy interact with culture differently — helps explain why Christianity’s history is fraught with so many bad theological ideas and horrific moments. Here’s what I mean…

The stories, letters, and poems in the Bible were written by marginalized people groups for marginalized people groups. Both Old and New Testaments are filled with accounts from people on the underside of Empire (eg, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, Roman). But then around the 4th century the Christian movement became strange bedfellows with Empire, so that instead of it being a “movement on the margins” it became the Movement. This marriage of religion and state tragically lead to Christianity not only losing the plot of the radical way of Jesus, but eventually being responsible for creating all new types of marginalized people.

Fast forward through the centuries and you can see how the leaders of the Church eventually represented types of lives that were far removed from the perspective of those who went before them — specifically those who founded their religion. Today we have wealthy, white, powerful men who do the bulk of the reading and interpreting and teaching of the Bible and yet they often represent values completely at odds with the God as revealed in Jesus.

It’s painful (and embarrassing) to observe the versions of Christianity promoted by men like Jerry Falwell Jr, James Dobson, and Franklin Graham. It looks nothing like Jesus or his vision for humanity. Reasons being? The Bible was written in languages they don’t understand — and I don’t mean Hebrew and Greek, I mean poor and oppressed.

Franklin Graham — representing a version of (un)Christianity

This doesn’t make it impossible for people near the top of the hierarchy to understand the Bible — otherwise much of my life has been pointless. But it does require that those of us who find ourselves with layers of privilege, or who find ourselves closer to the top of our culture’s hierarchies, have to take extra steps and be hyper intentional to understand the words on the page in the context of those who’s lived experience is very different from our own.

We have to work hard to understand the world of the Bible and who wrote what and why and to whom. And then we need to listen and learn from those who’s lives might more closely align with the outsider, the other, the oppressed.

Because odds are, they’re going to “get” the stories and the teachings and the poems in ways I won’t.

They’re going to see with eyes that I don’t have,
and hear with ears tuned to frequencies I’m not.

If we don’t listen and learn from those on the margins, we might just keep on being the pharisee without even realizing it.