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The Chameleon Pharisee

There he stands.  Pompous.  Full of himself.  Arrogant.  Self righteous.  He is the stuff of Christian legend.  The Pharisee.  In our shared imagination, he is a thoroughly distasteful fellow.  Face in an almost constant scowl.  Over sized phylacteries prominently displayed.  We smile as the story Jesus is telling continues.

"I thank Thee, Almighty God," the man prays.  

Perfect.  He's using King James English.  A sure sign of a Pharisee if there ever was one.

"I thank Thee that I am not like that sinner over there," he intones, pointing to the pitiful tax collector cowering off in the shadows not far away.

"I fast many times ever week.  I study Thy law.  I keep Thy commandments."

What a sap.  Keep His commandments?  Yeah.  You pompous jerk.  I bet you're running around on your wife and ripping off little old ladies at work.

And then Jesus turns his story toward the sad sobbing Publican.  
He will not lift his tear-stained eyes upward.  He beats his chest in an act of self punishment.  And, his prayer comes with authentic humility and faith.

"God, I'm such a terrible person.  I do not deserve to even look upward toward heaven."

We already like this one.  No King James English.  And, look, he's dressed rather shabbily.  Perfect.  He's the real deal.  We all know spirituality when we see it.

"I am an unworthy sinner.  I am unworthy to be called thy child.  I have sinned against heaven and against you.  Just let me stay with your servants and eat with ...." 

Okay, wait.  That last part may be from another parable.  But, the idea's still right.  Humble sinner trumps pompous self righteous Pharisee or grumpy elder brother.

So, we carefully dress down for church.  Sometimes, especially if some older person glances at our attire with even a hint of disapproval, we can launch into our polished explanation that the God we serve doesn't care what we wear.  So, we absolutely don't care.  Which, if we took a long hard look at ourselves, isn't exactly true.  If we didn't care then we'd be just as willing to dress nice as to dress casual.  But, we kind of do care.  We care very much.  

We can pick out the Pharisees because they are dressed so well.  They don't sneak a beer every once-and-awhile.  They don't drop a well planned colorful word into their conversations.  They're squeaky clean boys and girls who carry their Bibles and don't go to R-rated movies.  Can't they see how Pharisaical they are?

We are not like them.  We are edgy, a tad worldly, aware of the latest trends in culture, and oh so very humble.  We are thankful we are not like them.    

So, we look downward (are we holding our heads at the right angle to show anguish?) and pray, "Like, thanks, Father.  Thanks that we're not like those self-righteous Pharisees over there.  Look at our clothes.  Listen to our language.  Look at the movies we go to.  You can see we're more like the poor humble sinner."

Of course, if we were to let the words of Jesus come alive, we'd notice we sound a good deal more like Pharisees than Publicans.  Our carefully arranged dress-down look, our flaunting tradition, all of our in-your-face humility, rooted firmly in our determined this is who we are and you d__n-well better learn to live with it. 

By insisting we are not the Pharisee we sound very much like Pharisees.

"Thank you that, unlike others, I am not like that Pharisee over there."

In fact, there's really no way to get the parable of Jesus right.  If you insist you are not the Pharisee, you sound just like a Pharisee.  

Perhaps the only right would be to look long and hard in the mirror and recognize that Pharisees didn't look like pompous scowling old men with their noses turned up holding signs in their hands that read, "I'm holier than thou."  They looked exactly like what people expected seriously spiritual people to look.  They dressed the part.  They talked the talk.  They fit the image.  They were not evil people who pretended to be righteous.  They were genuinely good people who knew, deep down inside, that they were better than tax collectors and sinners.  And, they were right.  By any measure of ethics and piety, they were better men.

But they were wrong.  They were wrong because comparative religions is never language of prayer.  Better than.  Worse than.  It doesn't work.  At every level of our lives, our struggle rests in our failure to measure up to that better version of ourselves that rests just out of reach.  And, if we find some day we have become that better version, then to realize a better version than our better version is once again resting just out of reach.  

We do not reject the Pharisee by loudly announcing we are rejecting the Pharisee.  We are not demonstrating Christian freedom by both doing exactly what we want, especially in a group of people who are also doing exactly the same things.

We cannot insist we march to a different drummer simply because we choose a different group to get in step with.  Spirituality cannot simply be whatever ideas about how a Christian looks and acts receive disapproval by the fundamentalists.  Not even when, perhaps not coincidentally, these are ways of dressing and acting and speaking that are more expected by the progressives and admired by the Christian intelligentsia.  

The most dangerous Pharisee we face is not found in a disapproving look in church or from a critical comment to our earthy but insightful Facebook update.  The Pharisee we face is always the one looking back at us with our own eyes.  He is the consummate chameleon.  He wears suits and ties and jeans and sandals.  He sports a perfect right-wing Republican hair-style and a plethora of tattoos and body-jewelry.  He won't touch a glass of wine and regularly downs a beer and a bump with a good cigar.  He loves to listen to Driscoll, adores R. C. Sproul, avidly reads Hauerwas, and knows long quotes from Ghandhi.  

We must face and finally reject whatever styles or behaviors we embrace as a means to elevate us and our selected circle of peers above the pathetic herd of less informed, less biblical, less conservative, less progressive, or less committed Christians that we can look at through the lenses of quiet contempt. 

We must acknowledge we are all Pharisees.  And, we are sorry that we are.  We wish we were not.  And in that we cannot even glean of satisfaction of imagining by crying out we are the Pharisee that we are now magically exempt from being the Pharisee.

We can only stand and stammer what a fisherman once said, "Depart from me, Lord.  For I'm a sinful person."  And find, in that moment, that we have discovered a prayer that Jesus refuses to answer.

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