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Posted: 8/20/2016
Are We Like Pharisees and Can't See God's New Thing?
God is Doing a New Thing! Pharisees Don't See It.
Christ curses the Pharisees.
"Christ Curses the Pharisees." Etching by F.A. Ludy (1843) a German engraver and etcher.
"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:19)

I've found this passage from the prophet Isaiah to be one of the most encouraging in scripture. Our Creator-God does not stop with the original creation ... God's creation continues! While the "New Thing" was most evident in Jesus, I take this scripture to imply that God continues to do a new thing ... even today. "Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?"

Well, the reality is that don't we always see it. Not because it is hidden or in secret; we just don't see God's New Thing. But, it's always been that way. Jesus was definitely embodying, living, and proclaiming a New Thing, but not all recognized it ... especially the Pharisees.

The Pharisees are an interesting study. In scripture, we hear about them mainly in the gospels, usually involving their disagreements with Jesus. And, Jesus rarely spoke highly of them: "You snakes! You brood of vipers!" (Matthew 23:33) Perhaps Jesus' harsh words were as much from frustration as they were pure anger. Some scholars suggest that Jesus may have been close to many Pharisees and perhaps in his formative years even learned from them. But, whatever, they were not going to help spread the New Thing; they wouldn't even consider it, let alone buy into it.

If you've never read about the Pharisees (and other Jewish leaders of Jesus' time, such as the Sadducees), it is worth it to take a look. Although most came from common roots (as opposed to the Sadducees who were upper class), Pharisees considered themselves as set apart, separated. In fact, that's what the root of the word pharisee means. Speaking Of Jesus:
"He kept one thing uppermost in his heart, the love of  neighbor and of God, which was unconditional, the sum and substance of the Torah, and he treated everything else, however sacred it was in men's eyes, as man made, conditional, flexible, deconstructible. His periodic flashes of anger  are reserved for those who confused the latter with the former."
John D. Caputo,
What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
They were intense scholars of the faith and stressed meticulous adherence to their interpretation of the Torah. They placed a special emphasis on man-made rules that followed the Torah, especially purity rules. No wonder they and Jesus were often in conflict. They emphasized personal purity and holiness; Jesus was more concerned with God's love. Pharisees scorned and avoided sinners; Jesus sought them out. Today, we often use the descriptor "pharisaical" to mean a hypocritical and arrogant person who places the letter of the law above its spirit.

Even with all that and Jesus' frequent condemnation, I've always thought the Pharisees have gotten a bad rap, often set up as scapegoats and foils for Jesus' picture of the true Kingdom of God. Maybe that's because I have to admit that I sometimes see myself in their self-righteousness, in their strong belief that they know God's truth. I've got truth figured out; why can't those other people understand like I do? Don't ask me to look at something differently; I might have to adjust my well-thought-out theology. I am doubtful I would "see" God's New Thing. And, I doubt I'm alone.

The Pharisees could not see or comprehend God's New Thing. Although there were political fears and their need to hold onto their esteemed positions, I think the main reason these religious leaders could not accept Jesus' teaching was that his vision of The Kingdom was not theirs; his teachings did not fit their version of God's truth. His was a New Thing; theirs was their old, established, never-changing truth. A New Thing will always challenge the old thing; it especially challenges the visions and beliefs behind the old thing.

We revere the past, especially our beliefs and understandings of the past. Tough to see A New Thing if we clutch onto the past. The verse that precedes the stated Isaiah 43:19 quote and leads into it gives insight. The two verses make things more complete:

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:18-19)

The past and lessons of the past are important. We can learn from and gain insight into today. But, if we latch onto the past and view its lessons as never changing, then we will probably not see any New Thing our God might be doing. If it's new, it's going to be different. And if "different" is too challenging, or too threatening, we won't be able to "No significant change will occur until the hope for a better future exceeds the longing for a distant past."
Paraphrased from a presentation by:
Rev. Thomas Brackett, Missioner, The Episcopal Church
say Yes to the Spirit that may be calling to a new future. We may not even consider it enough to think about saying Yes.

What prompted my Reflection on this God-Doing-a-New-Thing topic was a sermon I heard that focused on what is often called the "Culture Wars" and how modern culture and trends in American society attack Christian values. The preacher's message emphasized a call for "true Christians" to stand up and fight for God's Truth. Such messages usually set me off because I can't say that all the Christian values proclaimed as threatened are what I view as Christian values ... and many values I think important are usually missing from their list. But, my initial bristling aside, I think this outlook is based on a destructive assumption: that any societal movement (especially a secular one) is part of some monolithic entity's focused goal to attack Christianity and people of faith.

Could it be that many social movements and cultural trends are actually reflective of God doing a New Thing? Even some of the ones we consider threats? Could it be that a movement is secular-spurred because, like the Pharisees of old, people of faith can't imagine or accept the changes in thinking that God's New Thing might require?

Most Christians today accept that the Civil Rights movement of the sixties involved God doing a New Thing. But, at the movement's onset (and throughout the movement), many Christians could not see it as good, let alone God-inspired and get involved. Even many black Christians and black churches thought the movement something to avoid.Although many black clergy were involved in the leadership of the Civil Rights movement, there was probably as much secular involvement as religious involvement. Many (both black and white) clergy and their churches did not support the movement. Some thought the church had no business getting involved in "political" affairs; some fought against the movement (more so in the South) and preached an overt biblical support for segregation.

Church and clergy support in the North was mixed. Some were directly involved, some stayed on the sidelines believing that political issues were not something that was proper for the church. Most of the support came from what might be called the "liberal" elements of American religion. The Gospel Coalition website presents an interesting historical perspective on religious support and non-support of the movement. See Gospel Coalition site.
The Women's Suffrage movement found many Christians hostile its implications. (Women in ministry is still a debated issue in many Christian circles.Although in most Protestant churches, the issue is settled with women having a prominent place in ministry and even many churches ordain women. Some denominations that do not ordain women include Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Missouri Synod Lutheran, Southern Baptists, and Roman Catholic. Rational for not ordaining women varies. Some biblical references are often used (such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12-15); many cite church tradition and refer to the gospels showing Jesus' twelve disciples as male only.

The Roman Catholic church, led by Pope Francis, is beginning to wrestle with considering allowing women to be deacons (an ordained position). Interestingly, for some twelve centuries in the Catholic Church, women served as deacons; but the practice was discontinued and today woman cannot be ordained as deacons (and definitely not as priests). The Jesuit Post online blog has a recent, interesting, and brief post that summarizes some of the history, rational, and arguments for and against women as deacons. It is at On Women Deacons
) And, Christian support and justification for slavery in our country contributed to it being such a difficult institution to abolish. History is filled with stories of people of faith not only unable to see a New Thing, but actively opposing it.

Now, I am NOT suggesting we assume all (or even most) shifts in social norms are good or God-inspired. That would be totally ridiculous. And, we need to be grounded; not blowing with each trend that comes along. I believe evil does exist, is real, and works to destroy the Kingdom of God ... and its threat calls for us to take a stand. However, it also seems wrong-headed not to prayerfully consider social movements that at first look seem contrary to God, and ponder whether God just might be in the movement. Maybe God's New Thing is so new to us that it challenges our long-standing beliefs and traditions. Often, our prayerful consideration will confirm that the movement leads away from God. But, God does say, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." (Isaiah 55:8) We should not be quick in our judgments.

The following are some current trends of thinking in American society. Might any of them suggest God doing a New Thing?While I have not referenced sources behind the stated trends, all did come from various on-line resources, such as Gallop Polls, Pew Research Center, and such. One Pew report on same-sex marriage contains some interesting statistics: Pew Report

  1. Among almost all groups and ages, Americans have decreasing trust in institutions, including the church.
  2. We have become more informal. Many wear jeans to work (and church!). Workers call bosses by their first names, as do parishioners with their pastors and priests.
  3. End of majorities: In just about all categories, there are no majorities. No one race is a majority; neither major political party has a majority. Even within Christianity, Evangelicals are a minority, as are liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
  4. 63% of Americans say homosexuality should be accepted and 54% see no conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality. (72% of white evangelicals do see a conflict between their beliefs and homosexuality, 36% of mainline white Protestants see conflict.)
  5. 60% of Americans support gay marriage, up from 30% ten years ago.
  6. A majority of Americans are concerned about immigration and believe the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.
  7. Support for the death penalty has declined. In many states (including Oklahoma) three-fourths of people support a moratorium on executions.
  8. A majority of Americans (nearly two-thirds) support some form of prayer in public schools. (For Protestant Christians, nearly 90% support prayer in school, and nearly 45% of people who say they have no religion favor school prayer.)
  9. Abortions are down nearly 15% in the last five years, with no significant difference between states with strict laws and those with more liberal laws. Attitudes toward abortion have stayed about the same over the past ten years, with 43% seeing it as morally acceptable (with variance depending on the reason for abortion).
  10. In the last 20 years, the divorce rate has dropped significantly (as has the marriage rate). If current trends continue, in the near future two-thirds of marriages will never involve divorce.

As I wrote the above list, I did exactly what I hoped I (and readers) would not do. Like a good Pharisee, I knew quickly whether each of the trends was good or bad, ones perhaps of God or definitely not of God. I did not take even a few moments to ponder (let alone actually prayerfully consider) whether any I saw as negative just might represent something deeper than I've thought.

Let me iterate that in no way do I think just because a majority of people think a certain way or move in a certain direction that we should jump on board. The path to destruction can be wide and well-trod. What I am suggesting is that, unless we are sure that all those many people who hold what we think threatening views are misguided or evil, we should at least be open to wondering whether there is some legitimacy here that we might be missing. Unfortunately, many of us are more prone to quickly throw stones and perhaps ask questions and talk with those on the "other side" much later, or not at all.

And, I want to take time to wonder and ponder whether just maybe God is doing a New Thing ... and, like a Pharisee, I may not allow myself to recognize it. The goal is definitely not to be Politically Correct; it is not to be necessarily "on the right side of history;" it is not to simply be counter-cultural. It is to be on the side of God. And to be open to being used by God to further God's Kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.

I close by meshing the three verses quoted from Isaiah:

"My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. ... Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 55:8,& 43:18-19)

I don't want to be a Pharisee!

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Resources Related To this Reflection

3 Ways Christians Address Cultural Issues
A blog by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today gives some helpful ways Christians can, in helpful ways, engage others on cultural issues. "The way we engage culture as Christ followers matters!"

Link to this specific Reflection: