Not Accepting Labels: Pharisees & Evangelization

How many of of us have a positive impression of Pharisees? Probably not too many. For most Bible readers, the Pharisees stand out, memorably as the best known opposition to Jesus and his followers.

230px-rubens-feast_of_simon_the_phariseeHowever, this Sunday’s Gospel reading for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Luke 7:36-8:3) reminds us of the absolute folly in settling for a label instead of a story in our relationships with others, even those we don’t yet know.

In the end we see that Sherry Weddell’s maxim, “never accept a label in place of a story” was as relevant to Jesus’ ministry as it should be for us.

As Luke the Evangelist so often reminds us, Jesus did a lot of eating. Jesus ends up at this particular dinner party because, “a Pharisee invited him to dine with him” (Lk 7:36). Did you catch that? Jesus, the Good News personified, doesn’t set up some intricate plan to attract the “unchurched” or “dechurched” of his age to come to him–a Pharisee invites Jesus. This tells us that Jesus operated outside the circle of his immediate followers. He wasn’t known only to disciples, he wasn’t so busy with his disciples that he made no impact, or impression on the outside world.

This can be tough for us today in our modern day settings. We want to be part of our local Christian fellowship in a parish, it’s good to be growing and living life with other disciples in parish life–yet, without keeping a balance, of cultivating authentic relationships outside of the parish walls, we’ll never experience what Jesus did. Without the perception of a possible “yet” to such an invitation, even from someone of different worldview or religious convictions, who would reasonably want to invite me to dine with them? While we don’t know the full intentions or motives of this Pharisee, we do see that he is taken at face value. Jesus accepts the invitation. And we can do the same, assuming good will and genuine intentions of every person we interact with, especially those “in opposition” to us in some way.

In the meal conversation, we begin to see beyond the label “Pharisee.” This man who was interested (for whatever reasons!) in having Jesus attend his dinner has ideas about Jesus’ identity. He thinks that Jesus might be a prophet (Lk 7:39). He already considers Jesus a teacher (Lk 7:40). In short, if we were to accept the label “Pharisee” as the full picture, we as time-travelling evangelists might write this man off. We might see him as one in opposition to the disciples and Jesus. We might assume his religious viewpoints are absolutely fixed and decided. We might take this man as a hypocrite because other Pharisees acted that way publicly. And if we did that–accepting the label instead of a story–we’d never know that he was toying with the idea that Jesus was a genuine prophet, and already convinced that Jesus was a wisdom-filled teacher.

 

But Jesus is always operating beyond a label. Jesus makes it personal. He addresses this Pharisee by name (Lk 7:40). “The Pharisee” has become Simon, a man who is wondering if Jesus is a prophet and interested in his teachings. And Jesus enters into Simon’s story.

See Simon was put off that Jesus had accepted the attention and affection of a sinner who had slipped into the dinner (Lk 7:38-39). Jesus does not give Simon the answer. He does not issue a direct correction. Jesus leads Simon to be able to see things differently, telling him a parable of two debtors, and asking him a question. It’s still Simon’s story. The difference is that Jesus is in it.

Now, sometimes we imagine that when it comes to evangelization, it’s all or nothing. But this isn’t the case. Jesus loves to save. Jesus loves to save so much that he’s willing to take a little openness and work with it.

Simon answers Jesus’ question about the parable correctly. Kind of. See Simon isn’t so sure. He couches his answer with an uncertain, “I suppose” (Lk 7:43). But Jesus does not call Simon out for hedging his bets on the answer. Jesus affirms the faith present. He gives a Teacher’s approval, telling Simon, “You have judged rightly.” You. This is all about Simon, not the religious beliefs, convictions, and practices of all the Pharisees Jesus has ever met or heard about.

And, just as Jesus heals the son of the father who can only muster this statement of faith, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24), or Paul takes as evangelistic success the response, “We should like to hear you on this some other time” (Acts 17:32), I suppose is an occasion for rejoicing. Jesus is in Simon’s story. We don’t (this side of eternity!) know the rest of Simon’s story. But, we do know this–there would have been no hope for Simon if Jesus had accepted the label, “Pharisee.”

Image credit: “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee” (Rubens, c. 1618, via Wikipedia)
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