After Dr Johnson’s exploits yesterday, Sister Johanna has been considering another shared meal among, well, if not enemies, men who were uncomfortable in each other’s company. Unlike Sam Johnson, Jesus was not setting out to be polite in order to let the conversation flow smoothly.
Some gospel passages make me groan. They are the passages where Jesus confronts the Pharisees and scribes, the “professional religious,” with their hypocrisy. Those passages worry me. As a nun, I’m a professional religious, too. I go around in special robes all the time. I’m greeted with respect when I go out – there are plenty of perks that come my way. People are generous and kind just because I claim to belong to God. Do I live up to their expectations? I wonder. So, I always feel implicated when Jesus details the aspects of the Pharisees’ behaviour that are at enmity with the worship of the true God, and with a life that is truly given to God.
At the same time, I groan over each occasion when the religious authorities in the gospels react with defensiveness to Jesus – defensiveness that builds and builds, until it becomes demonic, until it is beyond control, until it has become murderous. As I watch this well-known story play out day by day in my lectio divina, I sometimes wish Jesus had not been so inclined to “stir” the situation with the religious authorities. If the Pharisees often try to trick Jesus with ridiculous questions in order to force him to say something they could use against him, Jesus, too, at times seems to “bait” the Pharisees. One of those times is recorded in Luke 11: 37-38.
Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his house. He went in and sat down at table. The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness.’
This was clearly a set up – by Jesus. Surely, Jesus was aware that in failing to wash before the meal he would be pushing the Pharisee’s buttons. I feel certain that Jesus was just waiting for the Pharisee to express his disapproval. And he does so, but he does it silently. We can say a great deal by body-language, as Jesus well knew. I imagine perhaps one eyebrow slightly raised as Jesus was “eyed” by the Pharisee. I suspect an awkward pause in conversation occurred when Jesus sat down at table, unwashed. Jesus is ready, and jumps in with his spoken criticism as soon as he sees the Pharisee’s unspoken one. Part of me wishes Jesus hadn’t. Jesus could have handled the situation differently from the start, done the done thing, washed his hands, sat down and told a set of inspiring stories, tried to win the Pharisee with a more honeyed approach.
But, Jesus wanted to “stir” it. He wanted to bring the bad feeling out in the open – lance the boil. And, superficially anyway, I’m not comfortable with any of it. Jesus was not an easy dinner-guest: no elephants were ignored in any living room Jesus ever visited. Why? As I ponder this question and reread the text, I gradually become more aware of Jesus’ side of things. I begin to see that for Jesus and his mission, so much was now at stake. I become more aware that Jesus’ hosts were not usually easy for Jesus to be with, either. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dinner was unwilling to see that the core of religious truth – ‘justice and the love of God’, as Jesus expresses it in this passage – was being eroded by the practices and attitudes the Pharisees espoused. A few minutes later in this scene, the lawyers will also begin to feel attacked, and they say so: ‘Master, when you speak like that you insult us, too’ (11:45). And, instead of backing off, Jesus uses even stronger language: ‘Alas for you lawyers as well, because you load on people burdens that are unendurable….’
This all could have been very different, though. And not primarily because Jesus might have tried to be nicer. No, despite my discomfort, I suddenly realise that I emphatically do not want a nice, compliant Jesus.
What do I want? Let’s ponder this question for a day. What do you want from Jesus? Tomorrow we’ll resume our reflection.