The Priests and elders who encounter Jesus in the temple can’t bring themselves to say John the Baptist is not from God. That’s because they are afraid of the crowd. They think he is clearly from God. Why does the crowd see things differently? The simple thing is that they get it. They can sense something of God – John the Baptist gives them a feeling of being in the presence of goodness and truth and God. The Temple priests don’t get it. Why? They are operating on one cylinder – a good car engine has several cylinders. These clergy aren’t allowing the whole of their humanity to come into play, they aren’t letting themselves simply be human, when they are in the presence of John the Baptist, and of Jesus. Their engine has just one cylinder: a collection of beliefs and practices which they think are right. They think, “This is our way of doing things, and it’s right”. Life is about principles and rules and doctrines. Instincts?Not much. Intuitions? Precious little. Sheer human nouse? – that kind of holistic knowledge that is vouchsafed to us through the free ranging of the spirit as we respond to each other? Not a shred.
We are all Pharisees in some way or other. All of us create our own picture of how things should be. Other people are wrong, however kind we may be about it.
Our friend John Rodwell has just written new book, The tissue of his kingdom, shortly to be published by Mirfield Publications. In it he talks affectionately about his mother. He writes, “My mother had a thing about dust: she was against it. And, good 1950s housewife that she was, and with the help of the Kleeneze man who sold things out of a suitcase going door to door, she accumulated a whole battery of weapons to help her in this campaign: dusters of all descriptions, of course, small ones, large ones; brushes too, stiff brushes for dirty jobs, softer brushes for lighter jobs, brushes on a long stick with dusters tied around the end of them to reach awkward corners high up. My mother was the sort of woman who, quite without malice (well, almost without malice), could be found running her finger across the top of other peoples’ furniture to see whether there was a job to be done.”
John’s mother was no Pharisee or temple priest; and yet, as I say, there is a teeny bit of the Pharisee in all of us. This pharisaic bit of us always holds things that are good and true – it is good to be houseproud and clean – it’s good to stand up for truthful teaching. But our dearly held convictions and attitudes are always imperfect. We need to be able to say about all our cherished attitudes and approaches to life, habits, preferences and ways of organizing things, “this is me, but other people and with their different approaches have something to contribute as well”. When it comes to faith, we need to hold on to what is good and true, certainly, but always to keep the windows open.
Does this mean that everything is up for negotiation, and anything goes? Not at all. What can be difficult for us to realise is that in my approach to life or your approach to life, we are perfectly capable of operating on more than one cylinder. Jesus showed greater respect for tax-collectors and prostitutes than for the temple priests. But tax-collectors and prostitutes also need to learn and to change, And the truth and goodness of God that Jesus proclaimed was a bit different from being a sex-worker.
For us ourselves, we live today in the midst of a sea of unbelief. All around us are people for whom God means very little, all around us is a society that gives God little if any attention. It is a temptation to set ourselves over against all that, to build a stockade around ourselves, to be certain that we are right, full stop. That is not jesus’ approach. We don’t need to be afraid, to be afraid like pharisees. The unbelief around us is based on instincts, and we should not be afraid of trying to tune in to those instincts. The religious authorities of Jwesus’ day were defensive when faced with another view of life. But well-founded faith never needs to be defensive – it is happy to keep it windows open.
So we can be open to what non-believers can show us, but we are also operating on another cylinder. We have been sought out, we have encountered the living God. We know a powerful and beautiful music: Christ and God’s living Word, the Church and the sacramaments. This is our rock, our abundant wellspring of life and truth.
We live this living faith in confidence, but we keep the windows open and just see what happens. We can be houseproud as Christians, and I hope we are, but it should never be a hammer to bash people with. There was a good example of this this week in the funeral of Giorgio Napoletano, a former president of Italy who is widely respected as a good man, a man of integrity. But he was a non-believer, and insisted on having a secular funeral. A cardinal came to this secular funeral and took part in it, and gave a magnificent address about this good man. We can be generous and open to all that is good without being Pharisees.
The same is true about lesser things in our life, like housekeeping, or how to bring up children, or how to dress, or what music you like. Our own way with all these things is always to be lived with the windows open. Crabby lives can lead to crabby faith.
A couple of fundamental things lurk in all of this:
1 However strongly we may feel about something, however much we think this is the way things should be done, Christ calls us to humility, through his own humility. In today’s reading from Philippians Paul tells us, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves”.
2 An important part of humility is not sitting in judgement on one another. We can have our opinions, in a sincere quest for the truth. But they should never be laden with judgement, we should never run our finger over other people’s furniture – for we ourselves are imperfect, and our own picture of the right way of doing things has plenty to learn from others.
3 Self-knowledge. “Know yourself”. Growing in self-knowledge in the context of all those people with whom we spend our lives.
The tax-collectors and prostitutes get something right – and it is simply this: they come into the presence of Christ, and they get it. They are open, sufficiently broken open by their own need, to get it. Jesus thinks we need to be rather like them.