The Daily Office Lectionary’s gospel reading for today (I‘m writing this on April 15) was John 12.9-19. It is John’s version of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. In John’s telling of the story, the crowd that gathered to honor Jesus was there because of the reports that had circulated about Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. The Pharisees (according to John) were pretty dismayed by all of the attention and honor that was being given to Jesus. In the translation known as the Common English Bible, John writes, "the Pharisees said to each other, “See! You’ve accomplished nothing! Look! The whole world is following him!” Other translations echo the same sentiment: the Pharisees have tried all they could and none of their threats worked to keep people from following Jesus.
I have nothing against the Pharisees. I have a rabbi-friend who proudly traces his theological lineage to the Pharisees. And I think the Pharisees, on the whole, get a “bad rap” in the New Testament. After all, much of the New Testament was written to distinguish Christianity from Pharisaism. So, of course, the Pharisees would be put in a bad light. But the Pharisees, in general, were doing all they could to be faithful to a Jewish tradition that had lasted for hundreds of years and was struggling to deal with new realities. In many cases, however, their idea of “faithfulness” tended towards rigid interpretations. Jesus, at least as the New Testament tells us, was not about rigid interpretations. And, in the story of John 12.9-19, the Pharisees are found engaging in internal bickering about how well their “tactics” had worked with Jesus’ followers.
I can’t help but read this story in light of the news that we see just about every week. For one reason or another, folks are fleeing organized religion. We see that the Southern Baptists (the nation’s largest Protestant denomination) is shrinking. The numbers of Methodists who are considering leaving their denomination after their recent’ General Conference’s decision about inclusion of LGBTQ folks is startling. Even the Mormons are experiencing declining numbers among the millennial generation (for much the same reason as the Methodists). What seems to be happening is the same phenomenon that the Pharisees faced: a rather strict interpretation of their traditions “accomplishes nothing” in the face of Someone who promises (and delivers) new life! I can imagine that the debates within the Southern Baptist Convention, the Methodists, the Mormons . . . and the Anglican communion often end in the same “hands-thrown-in-the-air-exasperation”: We’ve accomplished nothing! The whole world is going in a different direction!
Rather than simply doubling down, however, into even harsher rigidity, I wonder if we’re hearing the message wrong. I doubt that folks are fleeing because there aren’t coffee-shops in individual churches or that First Church doesn’t have a smoke machine. My suspicion is that people are hurting and hungering for a community to accept them as they are rather than want them to be something else. The rule-makers, not those hurt by the rules, were the ones most often feeling the brunt of Jesus’ criticism . . . and I imagine it’s because Jesus didn’t see them as having open arms.
“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come with the reach of your saving embrace” (BCP, p. 101).This is the season in which we find ourselves now: celebrant Jesus’ open arms—leading not to rejection or death but resurrection . . . in the face of those who would cross their arms on their chest, wondering why they hadn’t made a difference.
[Note: there’s no coincidence that Jesus, in the photo accompanying this article, is facing the worst barrios of Rio.]