When I first returned (or came, I never can quite decide) to Christianity as a teenager, I imagined the Pharisees as basically identical with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritans: folks who loved to play “gotcha” with arcane rules, lying in wait for the innocent but hapless “normal people” who are just going along, minding our own business. In other words, I suppose I thought of them the way that Libertarians think of Democrats. As time rolled on and I did some formal research, both on Puritans and Pharisees, I started to understand them quite differently, perhaps a bit closer to how they might describe themselves. I found that Pharisees were not the same as Pelagians, that they were concerned not with doing good things so that God would like them better but with making sure that, when the Almighty brought justice to earth, that they would not, like their lax neighbors, miss out on that entirely gracious moment. The difference is a subtle one, but especially in light of the genuinely harsh and sectarian Qumran group, the Pharisees come across less as “gotcha” artists and more as modern-era culture warriors. In other words, the Pharisees had ideas about how Israel was to live, and their genuine concern was that the other Jews, by refusing their strictness, were missing out on the true life of the faithful, and that life began with the interpretive community called Synagogue.
The setting for many of Jesus’ exorcisms is inside the Synagogue, and this is no accident: since the Synagogue is a place where people interpret the law of Moses, Jesus’ presence there means that new interpretations are coming forth, and the repeated arrivals of demons at the Synagogue is not some sort of latent “anti-Semitism” so much as a signal that the war between the Son and the Satan is, among other things, a war over the Bible. (The temptation narratives echo this idea.) In this encounter, Jesus counters the Pharasaic view that the Sabbath is primarily a symbolic distinction between the pious and the lax, countering that at the roots of the Sabbath are those first Ten Commandments of Exodus, and at the heart of those commandments is not “law” in the abstract but God’s rescue of the oppressed from the powers of the world, whether those powers be Pharaohs or demons or even one’s own warped desires. In this case, Jesus seems to imply that the God who commanded the Sabbath is also the God who delivers from unclean spirits, and there is no bad time to celebrate that central reality.
The shame of Jesus’ opponents is not the triumph of Enlightenment-style piety-without-ritual over the “provincial” ways of the Pharisee so much as a return to the particularity that the Pharisees forget as they abstract rule from story: Jesus, in other words, is trying to keep Moses in the law. May our own lives of devotion and of moral struggle continue to draw from the grand stories of God’s salvation.
I realize that the last three weeks I haven’t done a lectionary post, and for that I do apologize, but do look for more here. I’m starting today, and my goal is to continue to post them before lunch every Monday.