Sermon – 23 October 2005

I have become accustomed to seeing in the bookshops great quantities of what have become called “Self-Help Books”. I may even have one or two on my bookshelves – many people do. You know the kind of thing – The Road Less Travelled, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Women who Run with the Wolves, Super-Elder, I’m OK, You’re OK, Living with Angels. You know the kind of thing. At best they can be helpful, at worst, positively silly.

Well, I’m thinking of going into the business with a book for those shelves. It has got the following chapter titles:

·        Piety for pilgrims

·        How to be good

·        Know right from wrong

·        How to mix politics and religion…in a good way

·        Learning more and more about God every day.

·        A radical approach to living the good life.

It is going to be called My Inner Pharisee.

You see, the Pharisees get rather a bad press in the New Testament. We are so used to them being derided as the baddies in the story that we tend to lump them all together with the Sadducees as a bad lot who were out to get Jesus. We must surely be against anyone who was against Himself, after all. Mustn’t we?

Yet part of the truth about the Pharisees is that a lot of what they said was pretty good. Indeed a number of Jesus’ own followers came from the group called the Pharisees. There were people who had formerly been Pharisees who began to follow Jesus. There were people who turned their eyes in God’s direction as a result of an encounter with the one we know as Lord.

The most obvious example of this is Paul of Tarsus himself, whom we have already heard from this morning and to whom I will return in a moment.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees turn up because they had heard that  Jesus had confounded the Sadducees when they turned up to try to catch him out. I don’t think that this was necessarily particularly malicious – the Pharisees liked their theology and liked a good argument. To an extent, in that religious world, you did not only exercise your religion by going to worship God – you also were religious by going to listen to people like this debate, or if you were a man and in a position of some power, you joined in the debate for yourself. As we look at that world, it might be an odd thought that listening to people argue might have been a way for people to get in touch with God. It is worth thinking about. One of the great truths that the Jewish people seem to know instinctively and which Christians so seldom seem to grasp is that there are different ideas, lots of different ideas about God. And one of the ways of getting in touch with those ideas is to argue and discuss and debate.

Nothing, after all, could be more important than talking about God and how to live in God’s world. The Pharisees, with their intense love of debate at least teach us that civilised debate is possible amongst God’s people. They may even teach us that it is necessary. Required even.

So they come to Jesus and receive back from him some of their own teaching. Which commandment is the greatest they say? Just the kind of thing to get the kids going in the Young Pharisees Summer Club. Which commandment is the greatest?

His answer is to throw back at them some of the teaching which they most revered (from the book of Deuteronomy) and put his own spin on it – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and your neighbour as yourself.” But he did not leave it there.

I know a good preacher in the Scottish Episcopal Church who has a habit of announcing his text at the start of a sermon, then he repeats it again. Then he says it once more loudly and slowly. They we hear it one final time and he adds a bit on the end. Then he preaches on the bit that he has added at the end.

Rabbi Jesus was a good preacher and he does something similar today. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself” – both teachings of the good Pharisees themselves and then he adds a bit – “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And that is the bit, the bit he added that we must think about today.

For in the bit he added, Jesus turned the writings of the Pharisees inside out. For he defined their teachings not in terms of which rules could be kept but in terms of the motives of those keeping them. He told them that it was all about Love.

When I was born, some 39 years ago, the Beetles were singing, “Love, love, love, all you need is love.”

It was a song the young Rabbi would have known all the words to.

And what of the best known Pharisee of them all – Paul of Tarsus who claimed that being a Pharisee was a jolly good thing, at least as far as it went, until he met with the risen Lord. What do we find him doing today?

Preaching the message of Love to the Thessalonian church. And he does so using the language of gentleness and care. “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring…so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”

Would that those who so often choose Paul as their particular spiritual guide would do the same.

Paul of Tarsus knew as a good Pharisee and as one who had met Jesus on the road, the great truth that the Master had taught the Pharisees.

It all, in the end, comes down to Love.



  1. Kelvin says

    Re: Sermon – 23 October 2005
    You’re showing your age its Beatles not Beetles!

  2. Anonymous says

    Re: Sermon – 23 October 2005
    Oooh, thanks for your comment – amendment made.

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