Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Modern Day Pharisee

            “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Matthew 12:7
            “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:20

            There’s an older couple in our area.  They are a nice enough couple, but the wife is the kind of person who likes to comment on and be in everyone else's business.  And her favorite past-time is noticing every time someone else’s lawn gets too high.  That’s pretty much what they do all summer . . . mow their lawn every three days and watch everyone else’s grass grow.  Lawn height is one of their biggest concerns. 
            Last summer, a new family (I’ll call them “the Smiths”) moved into the neighborhood.  There are two young kids and a single mom who works a lot.  And so their lawn doesn’t get mowed often.  Just after they moved in, no one in the neighborhood had met them yet but their lawn was above the height limit.  And the older neighbors reported them to the city, without ever having said “Hi” or welcoming them to the neighborhood.  I found this out when we got a friendly warning that “someone” was calling the city to report our whole side of the street, new neighbors included. 
            Shortly afterward, I saw the young Smith boy out there in the 90 degree heat and oppressive mosquitoes, fighting a tiny electric mower for hours trying to get their lawn cut, up and down all the big ridges around their yard.  And when it was done, the older busybody neighbor (I’ll call her “Fanny”) had the nerve to sneak over there and put a note on their garbage can which said, “This is how the neighborhood is supposed to look.  Signed, The Neighbors.”  (I found out this part after meeting the new neighbors.)  And this isn’t the first time she has done this to new neighbors.
            When I heard about it, I . . . WAS . . . TICKED!  And I was aching for the new neighbors and for how they must feel.  They had just moved in, didn’t know anybody, and now they were being treated like the lowly scum of the neighborhood.  Law-breakers!  Plus, they didn’t have a dad around to mow the lawn or to even pat the son on the back and say, “Good job, son.  The lawn looks great.”  My heart broke for this boy and for the family.  And I was so angry with Judgmental Fanny.
            How could she be so concerned with lawn height, and not concerned at all with the way a new neighbor might feel?  She cared more about the lawn and less about making this family feel welcomed.  She cared more about how the neighborhood looked and less about the struggles that this “single-mom family” was going through.  She cared more about “following the rules” and less about having compassion on the hurting and about getting to know someone first.  And that’s when it dawned on me that this is what a modern-day Pharisee must look like.  I never met one before.
            Pharisees were all about strict rule-keeping and about maintaining positions of authority over other people.  They were more about keeping people in line and less about people’s hearts.  They were more about polishing up the outside and making sure the neighborhood looked good than they were about cleaning up their insides, their heart attitudes, and showing compassion for others.  No wonder Jesus saved his strongest words for them. 
            No wonder Jesus said that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees you won’t enter Heaven.  Their righteousness was about what’s on the outside.  It was about maintaining appearances, following rules, keeping the law to the letter for the sake of keeping the law, and keeping others in line.  But Jesus’ kind of righteousness is about what’s on the inside.  It’s about a faith that reflects a heart change, about compassion, forgiveness, serving others, grace and mercy, and drawing others to God through love and truth together. 
            Pharisees may have had truth, but they lacked love and compassion.  They may have made sacrifices for their faith, but they lacked mercy and grace.  And without love and mercy and grace, no one will want your kind of faith.  No one will want to know that kind of God you claim to represent.  If you are all about the rules and cleaning up the outside, no one will be able to truly experience God’s love and forgiveness and grace and mercy, which is what the gospel is all about.
            Anyway, for days, I was bothered about how Pharisee Fanny treated the Law-Breaking Smiths.  And I wanted to do something about it.  Now, I could have easily chosen to not get involved, to say that it wasn’t my fight.  But when I put myself in Momma Smith’s shoes and considered how alone and harassed she must feel, when I thought of how those two children must feel so unwelcome in the neighborhood and like outcasts, it became my fight. 
            Even my husband got a little worked up, saying, “How dare Fanny!  Who does she think she is?  I feel like sticking a note on her door telling her that what she did isn’t right.” 
            And of course, it would feel good for a moment to know that we stuck it to them.  But I chose to handle it a different way. 
            For one thing, I felt so sorry that the boy had to mow the lawn, without a dad to do it or to encourage him.  (I know how it feels to be a child of divorce.)  I felt sorry that I couldn’t get out there and help him myself.  But I figured that there was something I could do to encourage him: I could bake him some oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies.  And I brought them over with a note saying that I noticed how hard he worked to mow the lawn in the discouraging heat and bugs.  (It was so bad that my family hadn’t gone outside for a week).  And I said that I was proud of him and I thought he was a great young man.  I said that since I couldn’t mow the lawn for him, I decided to at least make him cookies. 
            I wasn’t able to make his problems go away, but sometimes we just need someone to acknowledge us and our hard work and to say, “Good job.”  And that’s the least I could do for him. 
            Also, on one of my walks, I introduced myself to Momma Smith and told her who reported them to the city and sent the note to them, so that she didn’t have to wonder if everyone was watching her.  I told her that this older couple has been known to do this to others and that watching everyone’s grass grow is what they do for a hobby, so she shouldn’t take it personally.  I told her that all of us in the neighborhood know that this is what Fanny is like, that we have all been under her critical eye, and that she was threatening to report the whole side of the street.  I didn’t want this new neighbor to feel all alone and judged.  So I let her know that we were standing with her and that the lawn didn’t bother us at all.  I am more concerned about what kind of person my neighbor is than what their lawn looks like. 
            The new neighbor smiled in relief and thanked me.  She said that after the note Fanny left, she was feeling like everyone’s eyes were on her, watching her and judging her.  And now she could relax because she knew exactly who to watch out for and that the rest of the neighbors are not judging her and/or they have also been in her place before. 
            But I didn’t stop there.  Fanny had sent a note to the city complaining about the Smith’s lawn, and so I decided to send one standing up for them.  I wanted the city to see the Smiths as people, as a family with difficult circumstances, instead of just as “law-breakers.” 
            And so I sent a letter about how “our older neighbors, who have nothing better to do than watch everyone else’s grass grow, reported the new neighbors.”  I told them that the new family is a single-parent home with no dad around, that the mom works long hours to provide for the kids, that the kids are still so young, and that and the young boy is the one who has to struggle in the heat and bugs to mow their lawn.  And I pleaded with the city that, if Fanny complains again, would they please “show a little mercy to this new family who are good people, but who are stretched-thin and in need of a little grace and mercy.”  Just a little grace and understanding for them is all I was asking for.  
            Isn’t that what we all want and need?  A little grace and mercy and compassion?  Well, all of us, that is, except the Pharisees.  They have their rules.   
            After that letter to the city (and a letter to the Smiths explaining that I had sent a letter to the city standing up for them and that I hoped that it was okay with them that I did), I could finally rest easier.  I had done my part to watch out for my neighbor, to stand up for the harassed.  And I would much rather be known for standing up for and with the “grass height law-breakers” then be known for being so concerned with “the law” that I mercilessly fail to see the hearts of my fellow humans and fail to love them and have compassion on them. 
            “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 
            Or put another way, “I desire compassion, not rigid rule-following.”

            The Pharisees missed out on Heaven because they were more concerned with rule-keeping than with people, with polishing up the outside of the cup than cleaning the inside, and with the condition of other’s outsides than the condition of their hearts. 
            So then, who does make it into Heaven (obviously with the first requirement being admitting our sinfulness to God and accepting Jesus sacrificial death on our behalf)? 
            “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
            Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
            The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”  (Matthew 25:34-40)

            The Pharisees failed to see Jesus in people.  They failed to realize that serving others is serving Jesus.  They failed to realize that following Christ is not about rules or lording it over others or focusing on converting them, trying to make them see things your way; it’s about compassion and serving and humbling ourselves and mercy and grace and forgiveness and love.  Because when you do this for others, you do it for Jesus. 
            The thing that I think is interesting in the above passage is that the people didn‘t even realize that they were doing those things for Jesus.  And they weren’t doing good things in order to gain some reward in the end.  They weren’t looking for big ways to prove their love for God or to earn anything or to impress others.  (This is opposite of what the Pharisees do.)  They weren’t really even aware that the way they lived would be rewarded in the end. 
            They were simply living a life of compassionate, selfless service towards others, doing the small daily tasks that came their way and taking the small opportunities to show Christ’s love to the down-and-out.  It was so second nature for them to think of others that they weren’t even really aware that they were doing it or gaining some reward by it. 
            And they were not concerned with rubbing shoulders with and trying to impress the spiritual elite and the powerful and popular people, in an effort to gain some favor, personal gain, or special treatment.  They were not seeking personal gain and status and power. 
            Instead, they lived a life helping the less fortunate.  They had a heart for the needy.  They showed compassion to the law-breakers, those in prison, instead of pointing judging fingers.  They served those who could not pay them back.  Not to earn a reward but because they were living a life in Christ’s love, letting that love spill out to others.    
            Recently, I have been thinking about our country’s desire for power, wealth, success, and status.  And I realize that my prayer for my sons is not so much that they succeed in life and in career, but that they succeed in being good husbands, fathers, and neighbors.  It wouldn’t bother me as much if they failed in business pursuits, but it would bother me greatly in they failed in loving and serving their families and neighbors.  I would rather they lose jobs than lose the respect of their wives and children and neighbors.  I would rather they spread compassion than legalism.  Truth and love, not truth or love. 
            This is my prayer for them, that their priorities reflect the priorities of God.  His kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark:29-31).  Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8)  Doing everything for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).  Committing to their wives and raising godly families (Psalm 127:3-5, Proverbs 5 and 22:6, Mark 10:5-12, Ephesians 5:25-33 and 6:4, Hebrews 13:4, 3 John verse 4). 
            This is where the real rewards are.  The ones that matter.  The ones that last.  This is how we “build up treasure in heaven and not on earth.”  (Matthew 6:19-21) 
            For most of us, this takes a huge shift in focus to stop thinking about self and start thinking about others.  From rules to compassion.  From power and being served to humility and serving others.  But considering the fact that this is what eternal rewards are based on, it is well worth it!