Why didn’t Jesus chose a Pharisee as one of His first disciples? This unusual question crossed my mind while jogging one morning last week, and I have been reflecting on it ever since.
Jesus’ first disciples came from a broad cross section of society which included fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots (true there were no politicians and lawyers but politicians and lawyers particularly are the scum of the earth so they were understandably excluded), but why was there no one from the religious establishment? Surely it must have crossed God’s mind that if He wanted to start a church, He needed to get a churchy type of person into His organising committee.
As I thought harder about it, I figured that it probably had to do with the possibility that a Pharisee would complicate Jesus’ ministry, to say the least. Self-righteous, legalistic and inflexible, a Pharisee would probably have driven Jesus up the wall. I can imagine how some conversations could have gone like :
Saul : Did you see that Jesus? The children were peeping while you were leading the dinner prayers. Smite them with blindness Lord - that will teach them not to peep while you are praying …
Jesus (rolls eyes) : Saul, you need to chill. I came so that the blind may see, and not to inflict blindness.
Saul : What will be the punishment for that village which did not even welcome you a cup of cold water? Will it be a plague of flies or hailstones?
Jesus (rolls eyes again) : Saul, I’m generally not in the business of destroying entire villages or, for that matter, inflicting punishment on individuals. There are a number of dramatic instances of divine punishment in the Tanakh BUT by and large, during and between each of these episodes, sunshine and rain in their season continued to fall on both the righteous and the wicked. It is not by condemning the wicked that I will draw them to Me, but by My grace.
Saul : What?
Jesus : Nevermind.
Interestingly, it was only after the death and resurrection of Jesus from the cross, that God (if we ignore Nicodemus, who may have been a little deficient in the theological genius department) picked His first Pharisee-disciple. And even then, it took a dramatic confrontation on the road to Damascus for God to knock some sense into Saul’s thick head. What significance if any does this have for us as Christians today? At least three intertwining points cross my mind:
1. The cross points to a radical grace that we will never figure out by just playing church alone.
The church today is an institution, every institution has rules, and Christians being human and social / communal creatures, will gravitate towards playing by the "rules" of the church in our desire for acceptance.
The problem with the Pharisees was that they played so much by the "rules" of their "church", that they completely missed the grace of God. Jesus repeatedly warned the Pharisees that the elaborate rules by which they lived and measured righteousness, not only deceived them to think that they were righteous enough for God by blinding them to their own deficiencies, but also imposed a burden of misdirected condemnation and guilt on people, thereby denying the masses to access to the grace of god. It took the brutal sacrifice of Christ on the cross to draw everyone’s focus away from the deluded naval-gazing self-righteousness of their deficient personal lives, back to the overflowing grace and love of God which would cover all of our imperfections.
When the apostle Paul woke up to this reality he wrote -
"It is by grace you have been saved through faith … not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph 2 : 8, 9).
Between 15 to 20 years ago in Singapore many churches were divided over the issue of the form and format of worship services. Traditionalists believed that only hymns accompanied at most by a piano was the only appropriate form of worship, while not-so-traditional Christians believed that the only appropriate time for God to be worshipped through hymns accompanied by piano was at a funeral memorial service. Traditionalists perceived deviation from hymns as the start of a slippery slope towards secularising church services into rock concerts, while not-so-traditional Christians saw hymns as an obstacle to an intimate, life-changing encounter with God.
On hindsight, the only life-changing encounters as I see it (to exaggerate somewhat), were broken Christian lives over fractured churches.
Along the way, it seemed that no one remembered that worship tradition and practices - whatever form it took - was supposed to draw people to God, remind them of His grace, and inspire them to bless people outside the church, and not tear Christians and churches apart.
So Christians today must be careful not to lose sight of the grace of God, by teaching - overtly or implicitly, by the way we conduct themselves or the affairs of the church - that access to God is to be found in compliance with man-made traditions, practices, and rules.
As Jesus taught, "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2 : 23 - 27).
2. Perhaps the prostitutes, drug addicts, and loan sharks understand grace better than churchy Christians do.
In Matthew 21 : 31, Jesus warned the Pharisees that the prostitutes were entering heaven ahead of them.
Why was this so? One only needs to look at the account of the sinful woman who annointed Jesus in Luke 7, to understand why. The Pharisee who hosted the dinner in that passage basked in his self-righteousness and religious stature. Though the dinner was supposedly held in Jesus’ honour, the Pharisee kept a safe distance from Jesus, possibly because he did not want to be closely associated with the dubious "radicalism" or "liberalism" of Jesus and His disciples. Midway through the dinner, to the horror of all the Pharisees present, a local prostitue crashed the dinner party, knelt at Jesus’ feet, wet it with her tears and with perfume, and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.
As everyone at the dinner table started to choke on their food, Jesus calmly told everyone that the sinful woman loved much, because she had been forgiven much. Her sins and her shame were so egregious - she had no dignity or moral standing to speak of - that she could only turn to the God of grace for forgiveness, acceptance and adoption into a new spiritual life. The Pharisee on the other hand, held himself out as a pious believer, did not feel the same need for forgiveness, and was forgiven little. So confident was he of his self-made righteousness, that he had lost sight of His need for God.
Isaiah 64:6 states that even the righteousness of the most moral or righteous of us, is like filthy rags when compared against the perfection of God. A rag can be bleached, scrubbed, rinsed and sunned countless times, but it will never become spotless again. However, Jesus taught that the rags of our lives can be made white, by the redemption brought about by His death and resurrection from the cross. But this requires us to first acknowledge that the rags of our lives are not white.
Most of us - thankfully - have never felt the shame of being questioned by law enforcers like prostitutes, roughed up by law enforcers like drug addicts, or dragged into and charged in court like loan sharks. Never having been shamed or having to beg for leniency, however, we like the Pharisees can easily become dismissive and disdainful of the circumstances which compel people to do the wrong things that they do. Like the Pharisees, we can forget that Jesus also extends His hand of grace to the very sinful.
To the extent that the very sinful reflect the compassion and grace of God to those around them because of they are conscious of the depths from which they have been redeemed, they enter heaven ahead of us. And to the extent that we fail to reflect the redemptive grace of Christ in our lives because of our self-righteousness, we are at risk of becoming guilty like the Pharisees of denying people of access to God, even as we ourselves miss out on the grace of God.
3. Perhaps we need a radical encounter with God, as Paul did on the road to Damascus.
The most sobering thought to cross my mind is that we may need to be radically humbled, in order to become receptive to God’s grace and to understand what it means to reflect that grace to the people around us.
The Pharisee Saul (as he was known before he became the apostle Paul) took tremendous pride in his religious heritage and theological knowledge, and went around persecuting early Christians who did not adopt his interpretation of orthodox religion. If there was anyone who believed that he could see the truth with absolute clarity, Saul was he.
God blinded Saul while he was on the road to Damascus. And for three days, the man who thought he could see the truth was, literally, blind.
And if that was not bad enough, Paul suffered from an afflication throughout his life that God refused to take away. In 2 Corinthians 12 : 7 - 8 Paul wrote that "to keep me from being conceited … there was also given me a thorn in my flesh … three times I pleaded the Lord to take it away from me", but God never did.
The outcome of this was a deeply humbled man who realised that he had nothing that he could take pride in, before the infinite God. In connection with his highly successful ministry, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 : 9 that "I am the least of the apostles and do not deserve to be even called an apostle … but by the grace of God I am what I am". Then in connection with his affliction, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12 : 9 that God had revealed to him that "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness".
The grace of God, not self-made righteousness, or mere human brilliance, physical ability or force of character, was what gave birth to Paul’s ministry, and carried it through.
In my years in church, I’ve heard of many reasons why Christians experience disappointment or suffering. They range from Christians undergoing spiritual attack, to divine punishment, to training for future greatness. And sometimes (though less frequently because we like to spiritualise everything), we conclude that it is just a natural outcome of poor decisions.
The one reason I have heard only once, and only recently from a pastor friend of mine in response to the suicide of a relative of a prominent church leader, is that sometimes disappointment or suffering might be God’s way of humbling us, so that we can understand and empathise with what others go through when they suffer similar pain or disappointment, regardless of whether we agree with their actions. Often it is only after we are able empathise, that we can extend God’s love and grace unconditionally instead of conditionally with hints of self-righteousness.
In Hebrews 4:15 and 5:2, we are reminded that Jesus humbled Himself and took on human likeness, so that He may "sympathise with our weaknesses" and "deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray". Jesus became human and suffered as we do, to assure us that we do not walk alone even when we go through our darkest moments because He has walked a similar path before, and to assure us that He will walk with us unconditionally and guide us through if we will let Him.
If the Jesus Christ from whom Christians have derived their religious identity had humbled Himself to death in order to identify with us and to demonstrate to us the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace, why do Christians in their dealings with others today live as if the love and grace of God is conditional and limited?
May we never like Paul have to be made blind, so that we might learn to empathise with the blind.