Doodle: Pharisees versus Prophets

Giotto - Scene 26Being passionate about literature I often attempt to pull threads of thought through multiple works. I realise that occasionally the result of this is that my writing resembles little more than poorly sewn patchworks of ideas. Working on my current series treating the Pharisees – (1) In defence of the Pharisees, and (2) literary and historical considerations for reading the Gospels – two passages from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead came to mind. In this post I hope to unpack them in reference to my series and a few other related passages.

In Gilead, John Ames ruminates on the difference between a Pharisee and a prophet: “The prophets love the people they chastise.” And the implication of his reflection is that Pharisees do not. As I have studied each instance of the Pharisees in the four Gospels, one of Jesus’ recurring rebukes levelled against the Pharisees was their gross inability to love the people they taught. Sure, as Jesus noted, they were extraordinarily righteous, able to demonstrate unparalleled obedience to the law. However, and quite ironically, despite their fastidious obedience to God’s laws they failed to fulfil the second part of the greatest commandment: loving their neighbours as themselves.

Giotto - Scene 28In his earthy and encouraging work, The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine notes the Pharisees’ penchant for loveless obedience. He writes, “These Bible teachers justified ingratitude and bitterness in the name of standing for righteousness. They gracelessly pounded people with religious virtues.” But the thread I want to pick up from Ewine is what he says next, “The harshest things Jesus ever said (like the prophets who foreshadowed Jesus) were to the ministry leaders of his day (Matthew 23:1-36).” Towards the end of that cutting catena, in Matthew 23, Jesus labels the Pharisees diametric opposites of the prophets. For their fathers killed the prophets (23:31-32), and in time they themselves would silence the prophets too (23:34). Jesus then utters his distressed lament for Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the people of God, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (23:37).

In a book I return to often, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd ties some of our loose ends together, “Jesus [stood] in direct succession to the prophets of ancient Israel…The prophets took their stand on the conviction that God was at hand in human affairs, and they therefore interpreted the events of their time with insight derived from their converse with the Eternal…Similarly, we should understand Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as an interpretation of the contemporary situation in terms of his knowledge of God. It was a significant situation on any showing. Within Judaism a crisis loomed which was bound to resolve itself one way or the other before long…This was ‘zero hour’, the hour of decision.”

Giotto - Scene 34As John Ames approaches then end of his memoir he writes, “The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, prédicateur, which means prophet. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” Jesus was never mistaken for a Pharisee, while the Galilean public did liken him to the prophets of old (Mark 6:15). Ominous dark clouds hung over Jerusalem in the 1st century, and Jesus entered history to disclose the purposes of God, to dissect the mounting troubles of God’s people. Thus we see him as a prophet for at least two reasons. Firstly, his heart broke for those he preached to, seen in his anguished laments for Jerusalem. Secondly, in Jesus’ own words, “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).

Reflection: Heaven and Friendship

Grafitti by Bansky A thought came to me the other day. Large portions of our lives are spent enmeshed with the transient. So much of this life is fading away, receding from view, as we approach the horizon, moving through time’s inescapable passage. We leave things behind. And many of us won’t have the chance to return to precious memories. Friendship too can fall into that abyss of antiquity. Towards the end of my fourth year in Cape Town I noted that all the special times spent with friends were not only unrepeatable but also numbered, one less jointly juncture we would own: one less hike, possibly our last coffee, or a penultimate theological discussion. We live in the shadow of the end and we are running out of moments together.

A very good friend of mine, wise beyond her years, once told me: ‘saying goodbye creates one of the most unnatural feelings.’ The people we spend our lives with will not always be around, or even on the other end of a phone line. In Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, Utterson says to his dear companion Lanyon, who wanted nothing more to do with Dr Jekyll: “We are three very old friends, Lanyon; we shall not live to make others.” Our lives as fraught with loss and full of the unrepeatable; we forever long for something or someone that has been.

Writing these reflections down brought another thought to mind. Towards the end of last year I went away with the leaders and boys from my youth group. For part of an evening we shared some encouragement from the year past along with what would strengthen us in the year(s) to come. I told them it was glory. The sure hope that I would see my brothers again in eternity, beyond the horizon and free from time’s relentless march. Glory is the absence of goodbyes. Each and every precious moment will not fall beneath the shadow cast by uncertainty and temporality. Our fondest memories actually provide a pattern for the future. For there will be more like them shared with the friends we have not lost.

Listen to David Brainerd’s diary entry from the 19th of August, 1742: “I prayed with [Mr Bellamy] and two or three other Christian friends, and we gave ourselves to God with all our hearts, to be His for ever. Eternity looked very near to me while I was praying. If I should never see these Christians again in this world, it seemed but a few moments before I should meet them in another world.” Brainerd understood that the world to come was resplendent with relationships, unending friendship in the undying light cast by our eternal God, the one who gives us into communion with himself and each other.

I often catch myself joking about glory, talking casually about it being an opportunity to meet and spend time with great Christian figures from the past. It very well might be. But upon reflection I cannot imagine leaving those who were dearest to me on earth for those I barely know in heaven. Now I realise this is beginning to sound quite speculative, so I will finish off. Is it not a marvel that our hope enmeshes the transient with the eternal? Friendships will continue into heaven. And while it is sometimes hard to imagine, glorified friendships will be more magnificent in the unadulterated presence of our God.

Author of Gilead, RobinsonTo close, here is a fitting quote from John Ames, in Gilead: “We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…but I believe Boughton is right to enjoy the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world” (p189). What pleasures surpass real friendship?

Reflection: God’s Grace in Gilead and Reductionism

Marilynne RobinsonLast month I found a second hand copy of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead. The book is a collection of moving memoirs (for lack of a better word) written by an elderly man, whose heart is failing, to his young son, whom he will soon leave behind. John Ames, the father, never expected to have a young wife in his old age, let alone that he’d be leaving a child to the world in his flight from it. And so the warmly honest diary touches on many things, from grieved apology to wondrous reflections on human life and creation, to the painful recounting of his mistakes and pensive thoughts on his sermons and pastoral duties. Gilead is a tale of untold beauty.

One of the features in John Ames’ letter which I found myself rereading over and over was his theological musings. I want to quote one of them and offer my own brief reflection. As he approaches the close, John Ames writes, “the Greek word sozo, which is usually translated ‘saved,’ can also mean healed, restored, that sort of thing. So the conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations. I thought he [Jack Boughton] should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” What John Ames wants his son to bear in mind, and what struck me, is his caution to narrow and impoverish grace, for God’s initiative to save presents itself in a number of ways. When Jesus Christ saves people he gives life, affirming the goodness of creaturely existence and undoing the disastrous effects of sin.

In my experience, an all too frequent characteristic of Reformed theology is the tendency towards reductionism. Words and concepts are reduced so that they fit snugly within our larger systematic structure and ‘party line’ truisms. Michael Welker defines reductionism as, ‘limiting our understanding of an area to one guiding principle or single key at the expense of all other tools.’ N. T. Wright warns us against an overly reductionistic approach to Scripture. In his essay New Perspectives on Paul, Wright confronts those who would diminish the gospel to a system of salvation, ignoring that Israel’s Messiah was being proclaimed as the world’s true Lord who calls all people to faith. Grace writes us into the greatest story ever told.

Night SkySalvation is more wonderful than a system whereby God makes us right with him, for he remakes creatures for righteous living. Grace is much more than ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense,’ it is the magnificent divine movement that captures sinful creatures and takes them from rebellion to glory. Being saved is not God’s extraction of sinners from a hopeless world; it is their experience of his new creation both around and in them, as the Lord renews what was broken. As Michael Horton says in The Christian faith, “Scripture does not present us with a choice between the personal and cosmic dimensions of the new creation” (p560). Behold, he makes all things new! That is the greatest tale of untold beauty.