[with a nod to Pastor Todd Wilken's "Playing the Pharisee Card"]
In today's Gospel text we meet the Pharisees, and Christ again condemns them. We may wonder, what exactly makes a person a Pharisee?
This is important to ask because nowadays the label "Pharisee" is applied to many Christians for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they are called "Pharisees" because they uphold God's Word against errors. Sometimes they are called "Pharisees" because they love the ancient Creeds, confessions, and practices of the Church. Such people may be called "Pharisees" if they resist the latest fads and entertainments that threaten to replace the historic Divine Service.
Calling someone a Pharisee is meant to condemn him as being ultra-conservative, narrow, rigid and unloving. The label "Pharisee" portrays a Christian as a doctrinal purist who is unconcerned for the lost.
But why did Jesus condemn the Pharisees? Was it because the Pharisees were ultra-conservative doctrinal purists, with no love for the lost? No. Jesus faulted the Pharisees for being false teachers who abandoned the truth of God's Word, instead "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men."
In our Gospel text, the Pharisees were watching Jesus to see if He would break one of their rules. It was not a rule of God, but a rule of men. The rule said, "Thou shalt not heal on the Sabbath." It was only one rule among hundreds that they taught. Man-made rules are one of the real characteristics of being a Pharisee.
At the same time, we see in our Gospel text another characteristic of the Pharisees - always quick to condemn others. They observe and they nitpick the behavior of Jesus. They want Him to slip up so they can condemn Him as a sinner.
The Pharisees also taught that salvation was the result of God's mercy plus man's obedience. As soon as they included obedience in the equation, that became the thing that they emphasized more and more, and God's grace received only minimal lip service. They spent most of the time discussing their rules and how to live a better life. God's forgiveness got little or no mention in their conversations.
Jesus also condemned the Pharisees for their self-righteousness. As He put it in our Gospel text, they were always choosing the highest place. They thought they were the best people who deserved to sit in the best seats. They trusted that they were doing well at their own obedience and moral progress. They looked upon themselves as mature and spiritual people. So it was easy for them to look down upon those "sinners" like the tax collectors and prostitutes.
Once you are sitting in the highest place (at least in your mind), there is no reason to repent. So the Pharisees rejected the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus, who said, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near!" The Pharisees also rejected the forgiveness offered in Baptism. Why would they need forgiveness when they were not big sinners like other people? They were doing just fine, or so they thought.
So who are the real Pharisees today? You are. I am. You, me and every sinner - although not in the way that many accuse us of being. All of us are more willing to trust our own obedience than trust the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. All of us sometimes soften the Law's perfect demands so that we can say that we have kept them. All of us are inclined to self-righteousness. All of us are natural-born Pharisees. If someone wants to call us Pharisees for these reasons, we can gladly and repentantly say "Yes, I am a Pharisee."
But by God's grace, we have received the gifts of repentance and faith from the Holy Spirit. Being an unrepentant Pharisee is still in our blood, trying to get us to avoid the means of grace. But the Spirit shows us that we are sinners, and brings us to the Word and Sacraments.
So we have two natures: the Pharisee and the repentant sinner. It is not that we have found the wisdom to overcome our sinfulness. On the contrary, God's Word has shown us that we are very big, very serious sinners indeed. Seeing this by God's grace, we fall upon our knees before our Lord to beg for His mercy. We choose the lowest place for ourselves when we call ourselves sinners who deserve eternal punishment.
In this Divine Service, we receive His mercy, which is a greater healing than when Jesus cured the man of dropsy. Dropsy is a terrible disease that causes water retention and deformity, and eventually death. Dropsy was far beyond the healing powers of the doctors of Jesus' time. But He was the Great Physician who was far stronger and more able to heal.
Yet in that place were men who needed His healing even more than the man with dropsy. The Pharisees, who appeared to be healthy, carried the eternally crippling disease of self-righteousness. That disease leads to eternal death.
You and I have that disease as well. We need the healing treatment of Jesus. We could try all we want to heal ourselves, as the Pharisees tried. They were seeking after perfection in their own obedience to their own rules. But that is no healing. That is only delusion. But Christ gives true and eternal healing.
For we had fallen low in the pit of our own destruction. Like clumsy, stupid beasts, we had blundered into the pit of our own unrighteousness, at the same time that the Pharisee nature in us was trying to convince us that we were very wise and righteous.
But Christ reached down into the pit and pulled you out. He bent down to you from heaven above. He Himself entered your world and your flesh, stooping low in humiliation and sacrifice. Then He lifted you out of sin and death by being lifted up Himself upon the Cross.
He has not only rescued you from sin and death, but He has also lifted you up to the highest place. He sat at the highest seat in glory, at the right hand of the Father. Soon He will call out to you, "Friend, come up higher." Then you will ascend to where He is, and sit in the glorious place where you shall see God face to face. Already, your flesh sits at the right hand of God spiritually, since your life is hidden in Christ, and His flesh is your flesh. Soon enough, that reality will become visible for you to see.
There is the eternal banquet that He has earned for you by His suffering when He humbled Himself lower than you ever could. By His Blood, He has bought for you glory and honor, instead of the shame at the lowest place that you deserve.
This glorious Lord also calls you "Friend." By His death, the glorious Son of God has declared you to be His friends. God in human flesh counts you as His equals (even though you are not), since He has erased your sins and clothed you with His righteousness and glory. You who were once the enemies of God have become His beloved companions, here in this life, and there in eternity.
May you always, by His Spirit, boast only in Christ and never in yourselves. In His Name alone, with the Father and the Spirit, one God. Amen.
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