“Surface Shines, Inside Rots:” Pharisees on the Right, Pharisees on the Left

21 March 2012

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

“We’re all ok, until the day we’re not.  The surface shines, while the inside rots.”  (Rise Against, “Audience of One”)

In the passage we read in Luke on Sunday (Luke 11:29-54), we saw Jesus encountering the Pharisees.  It’s true that the gospels do not portray the Pharisees all that favorably, but let’s not forget that of all the faith persuasions of Jesus’ day, these guys were the most conservative and most faithful to the Biblical text.  The problem, of course, was that they couldn’t stop adding their own traditions to those of the Bible, a practice that Jesus sharply condemns.

But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that we’re any different, lest we wrongly – and proudly – stand before God and say, “At least I’m not like one of those Pharisees.”  In the last post, we hinted that religious behavior might be one way of managing sin and covering shame.  The real question is what kind of religious person you are.

See, the myth of the suit-and-tie-wearing, uptight moralist is rapidly disappearing from the evangelical marketplace.  Yet the image remains as a convenient scapegoat.  After all, it’s become fun to pick on the ‘religious’ people of our day.  Jared Wilson writes:

“…it becomes clear what they mean is ‘traditional people’ or the uncool. My feeling is that the Bible-thumping, starched suit-wearing, hellfire and brimstone religious people taking the fun out of fundamentalism are becoming fewer and farther between, while the church is brimming with self-righteous hipsters and cooler-than-thous. The Pharisees look like Vampire Weekend now.”

Which means you can be a Pharisee in one of two ways:

(1)    A Pharisee on the “right,” embracing so-called “traditional” values (stereotypes?) associated with the religious person.


(2)    A Pharisee on the “left,” embracing more “progressive values” that align with the culture of our own day.

Looking at their values, it’s easy to see the points of comparison:

Pharisees on the Right:Pharisees on the Left:
Respectability: Traditional religion emphasizes being “respectable.”  Good, upright behavior is what earns God’s approval –as well as the admiration of others.Authenticity: Today’s crowds are more likely to talk about an “authentic” life.  “It’s not a religion,” we insist.  “It’s a relationship.”  We want to be liked by others – so we distance ourselves from “those” types of Christians.
Necktie: Being respectable means looking the part: dress up to go to church.Skinny Jeans: Christians can be hip – it’s what separates us from those rigid fundamentalists, right?
Organ only: Hymns are the only way to worship God.  Other forms of music are sneered at for being both musically and morally wrong.Guitar only: We’ve evolved.  We threw away the stale traditions.  But now we insist on whole new ones: the guitar is the only acceptable way to worship.  Who needs John Newton when you have Chris Tomlin?
King James Bible: The only “real” way to understand God is in the good King’s English of seventeenth century Europe.  Because that makes a lot of sense.Blue Like Jazz: We want “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality.”  We want to know God personally and experientially.  So we elevate the experience of our own culture over the experience of 2,000 years of Christian thought.

And I’m not picking on Donald Miller or his fans with the Blue Like Jazz reference; the book truly is worth a read.  But the issue is that when we elevate experience over tradition we’re only narrowing our minds rather than broadening them.

The problem with the Pharisees on the left is that in the desire to kill the sacred cows of the past, whole new herds have been raised.  Today’s Pharisees are prone to using abstract concepts such as “social justice,” “mission,” “kingdom,” etc.  While these are all concepts the Bible teaches, they often fail to move beyond abstract theory to concrete practice.

So the Pharisees on the left and right really do have a lot in common:

Self-focused: Approval – man’s or God’s – is earned through one’s individual performance.

Need to be liked: We want others to think well of us.  We want God to think well of us.  Therefore we use our religious systems – whether on the left or right – to make ourselves acceptable.

Tradition-centric: Both sides say “My tradition is the only acceptable way to experience God.”  The Pharisees on the left sneer at the stale traditions of the past, and the Pharisees on the right shake their head at the laissez faire attitudes of rising generations.

Surface shines, inside rots: In both cases, these attitudes can become masks to conceal the real issue of sin and shame.

Most will fall somewhere in between these extremes or, more likely, be some curious blend of the two.  But Jesus came neither to affirm religion nor reject it entirely: He came to redeem it, which is something different altogether.

One of the surest ways of knowing where you fall is simply this: when you encounter others, how do you measure them?  Do you measure them against Christ and His righteousness?  Or do you measure them against the standards of your own culture?  In other words, do you desire that others come to resemble Christ or come to resemble you?

If it is the latter, than God help us all.  But if it is the former, than we all fall short.

Which tells us that we don’t need the shallow, empty, hypocritical religiosity of the right or left.  What we need, then, is not less religion, but deeper, more vibrant, true religion.  And that – in at least one sense – is what Jesus came to offer.


21 March 2012

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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