Luke 18: 9–14
Who can remember watching ‘Rawhide’, the Western series from the dawn of television? Does anyone remember the ‘Lone Ranger?’ Or ‘The High Chaparral’, which we still had to watch in black-and-white, even though colour was creeping in by then. As schoolboys in the 1960s, we weren’t bothered by political correctness, or the morality of how the West was won and lost, we just wanted six-shooters of our own! And when we played Cowboys and Indians in the playground every day, we all wanted to be cowboys. You knew where you were with programmes like Rawhide: the bad guy wore a black hat and shifty eyes. He cheated in card games, he almost stole the girl; but he always lost the shoot-out at the end; and was carried off to Boot Hill, feet first. The good guy didn’t say much – he was the strong, silent type – but he was chisel-jawed and clean-cut, with a white hat and a badge. He won in the end; and we all wanted to be like him.
Can we tell the good guys from the bad guys in the wild Middle-east? It’s more complicated. The bad guys could be the occupying Romans, with their harsh laws and harsh taxes and harsh reprisals upon any who threatened their grip on power. Or foreigners: gentiles, infidels, like the Samaritans living to the north of Israel. Or tax- collectors, sinners, and other common people, whose life-style fell so very far short of what the Law of Moses required, and who were therefore thought to be unacceptable to God?
Any of these could be contenders for the title of the bad guys in the New Testament. But all are eclipsed by the Pharisees. Our response to the Pharisees is pantomime: we almost hiss when they come on stage, they are so obviously ‘The Opposition’ in the Gospel stories. The Pharisees regard Jesus first of all as a curiosity, then as a rival, and finally as an opponent who must be annihilated. They first question him, then try repeatedly to trap him and catch him out. They demand signs to authenticate his claims; they challenge the way he heals people and declares their sins forgiven. Finally they plot to kill him, engineer his arrest, and arraign him on the charge of blasphemy, because it carries the death penalty. No doubt about it: the Pharisees excel as the bad guys of the New Testament. Hiss, hiss.
But if we could look through New Testament spectacles, instead of twenty-first century ones, we might see a rather different picture. In Jesus’ day, most people regard the Pharisees as the good guys. ‘They are conspicuous in their religious devotions, which gives me confidence. Though I can’t afford the time to keep all the rules and laws and regulations, at least my local Pharisee will see to all that. It’s the Sabbath again, but I can’t afford to stop work: I’ve got animals to feed, and water to fetch; but the Pharisees in the village will spend the day in prayer and piety. They will fast – you can see how seriously they fast, they all look so haggard and drawn. All that sack-cloth, and ash all over them. It’s too fiddly for me, but they give away a tenth of everything, even down to garden herbs. They study the whole time, and know the scriptures inside out. Yes, they can be a bit arrogant, and they like the best seats in the Synagogue, but it’s a small price to pay really, to make sure that God is kept happy’.
So when Jesus tells the sort of parable he does today, people don’t hiss as soon as the Pharisee is mentioned. They are expecting the Pharisee to wear the badge and the white hat and be the good guy. Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees comes as a real surprise. When Jesus has the Pharisee in his story thank God that he is not like other men, they would hear this as the Pharisee simply doing his job. And Jesus’ commendation of the tax-collector turns their notion of good guys and bad guys on its head. Now, the tax-collector is looked at with compassion and understanding.
But Jesus singles out the good guys for his harshest criticism, and they become the butt of a number of his parables. He disagrees fundamentally with the Pharisees over their black-and-white position on what you can do on the Sabbath. He accuses them of gross hypocrisy, and often he is quite rude to them. To call someone a whited sepulchre, to warn against the yeast of the Pharisees, to exhort his disciples to exceed them in righteousness: Jesus clearly needs a more diplomatic script-writer if he is trying to win friends and influence people. Meanwhile, for us the plot has changed: the Pharisees are now the bad guys.
There are plenty of ‘bad guys’ around in our own day. Islamic terrorists. Internet scammers. Knife-wielding inner-city youths. Drug dealers. Criminals. Politicians. Idle students. Benefit fraudsters, estate agents, journalists, people who voted the other way from me in the referendum; the list gets longer and longer.
But after a hour or so, even the most black-and-white thinkers amongst us will begin to hit a snag. We may have viewed of these groups of people as the bad guys at one time or another. And yet I know people, in some of these hated groups at least; and they are not actually bad guys at all. Friends of ours have children who are still students. I’ve met some fine journalists over the years. I had two estate agents in my last congregation. The Muslims whom I have met have all been unfailingly courteous. A former colleague of mine used to teach art to convicted criminals in Parkhurst Prison, where she learned something of what had driven them to crime. Members of my own family voted a different way from me.
Back in the New Testament, Jesus is not actually as black-and-white as he first appears. Yes, he berates them; but he also has dinner with a number of Pharisees. Dining with someone is an intimate thing to do. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, who comes by night to question Jesus, is not trying to trap him but to learn from him. Later, it is Nicodemus who brings ointments to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. Other Pharisees warn Jesus to flee for his life when Herod is out to kill him. The great Pharisee teacher, Gamaliel does his best to halt the persecution of Jesus’ followers; and in the book of Acts we learn that many of the first Christians besides St Paul were Pharisees.
The New Testament is not a script for a black-and-white western: it’s about real people, like the ones that we meet: some are good, some of the time. Some are bad, some of the time. Most of them were children, once upon a time. They all have a history, which affects the choices they make, and they all make mistakes.
As do we.
And Jesus, though he certainly falls out with some of the Pharisees, nevertheless deals with the ones he meets as individuals, not as stereotypical bad guys. As well as black and white, he seems to be able to distinguish many, many of shades of grey.
© Jon Russell 2019