One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
In the many debates online or in person about the inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church, two things are almost certain.
First, someone on the traditionalist side of the debate will accuse those in favor of inclusion of not accepting the authority of the Bible. And then someone on the inclusion side will accuse the traditionalists of being Pharisees.
It is almost a ritual.
When those arguing for inclusion say that the traditionalists are Pharisees, they are invoking a slur that has gone unchecked for centuries.
But the tradionalists are more like Sadducees than Pharisees. We often speak of the two groups together, but the Sadducees and Pharisees were very different.
Like everyone else in my generation and like almost everyone who went to Sunday School and grew up in the church, I learned early on that the Pharisees were the bad guys. They were self-righteous and hypocritical, obsessed with observing the letter of the Law, yet utterly tone-deaf to its spirit. They were rich and powerful, and they colluded with the Romans in opposing and eventually killing Jesus. They were ritually clean, yet morally corrupt.
And I learned in seminary that they were the perfect foil for preaching. Every narrative needs a good villain, and the Pharisees were the perfect villains for almost any preaching topic.
It was perfect, with the slight problem that it was wrong.
The Pharisees were reformers.
They had a three-fold belief that God was a loving father, who loved humanity so much that he gave us the Torah, the Law, so that everyone who followed the law would have eternal life (fellowship with God, now and forever).
The three-fold belief of the Pharisees gives rise to the animating question of Matthew, Mark and Luke: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If the way to fellowship with God now and forever is found in following Torah (the way), what does it mean to follow Torah? What specifically must I do? And the answer is the same in each of the three Gospels: love God and love your neighbor.
The Pharisees were not literalists, they believed in a two-fold understanding of the Law as both written and oral. The written Law was unchanging, but the oral Law was reinterpreted by each generation of Rabbis. The Pharisees gave us the Synagogue, and the rabbinate, and they gave rise to both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.
The Sadducees were in many ways the tradionalists of their day.
They rejected the Oral Law because they were literalists. They believed that the written word should not be interpreted; it should simply be obeyed.
The Sadducees were judgmental because they had no openness to the future. They were not waiting for the Messiah and they did not expect a Messiah because they did not believe that God would do something new.
Seventy-five years ago Harry Emerson Fosdick began his Christmas Eve sermon by saying, “We think this evening about the Sadducees.” He called them “the unloveliest people in the New Testament.” The sermon was titled, “Recovering Our Angels,” and he attributed the Sadducees’ miserable behavior and attitude to the fact that they did not believe in angels.
The angels that Fosdick referenced were not winged creatures in the sky. They were the messengers of God that come to us in myriad ways and incarnations, to inspire and comfort and sustain us.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need our angels to lead us into the future.