Jesus and the Digital Pharisees
It’s kind of ridiculous to ask, “What if Jesus were on Twitter?” But indulge me for a second, anyways. I’ve noticed something about our generation’s engagement online and with those we consider “Christian celebrities” – famous pastors or church leaders who have big platforms. There’s a tendency among those of us who blog, tweet, write, post, instagram, etc toward a subtle kind of Phariseeism. Our generation prides itself on not being legalistic, of casting off the sort of religious, rule-making paradigm we didn’t quite like about our parent’s version of church. But in our zeal to not be like those we think are bad representations of Christianity, we’ve adopted a legalism of a different sort.
In Luke 18, Jesus shares a haunting parable about who is justified in the eyes of God. I’m struck by a few things in this passage. First, Luke gives us a vague description of the audience. The NIV puts it like this: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” I”m guessing everyone in the audience thought that they were not in this self-righteous group. It was everyone else who needed to work on their pride.
Jesus then sets up a story of two people going to the temple to pray, a common occurrence in that culture. You first have the religious person, the spiritual one, who enters a time of prayer with pride. He wants to be seen as being prayerful and utters a public declaration, “I thank God I’m not like . . . . .” The people he names are people held in contempt by the culture, people who are “safe” to mock for their sin. Easy targets of ridicule and scorn. These are the people we might mock on Twitter and seek to distance ourselves from with heated denunciations or humorous take-downs. You can even envision the hashtags from this Pharisee’s prayer: #robber #evildoer #adulterer. Then the Pharisee, wanting to squeeze out every bit of public praise, narrows his focus to “and even this guy, the tax collector.” Here he is calling out the other man to enter the temple to pray, the guy with the worst reputation in the community, the easy target for manufactured outrage and public scorn. You can even envision this in a tweet, “So glad I”m not like @taxcollector who preys on the poor and betrays his own people.”
But Jesus, poking holes in the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, turns the narrative focus on the tax collector, who enters the temple, head down, full of remorse. Unlike the Pharisee he has no illusions of his own righteousness. He’s overcome with guilt and sorrow for his sin. He knows he doesn’t deserve anything from God but punishment and so cries out in mercy, even beats his breast.
This man, Jesus said, walked out more justified than the Pharisee. Why? Because it wasn’t others’ sin that so gripped his heart and soul, it was his own.
Now most of us would hear a story like that and shout “amen!” because we don’t think we’re the first guy, the self-righteous Pharisee. Those are the people with all the funky religious rules and weird clothes. Those are the fundamentalists of another generation or the obnoxious guy on Facebook who doesn’t celebrate Halloween or the celebrity pastor who keeps saying dumb things.
But I think Jesus would beg to differ. Remember he addressed this parable to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” That cuts both ways. What’s more, if the tax collector in Jesus’ day was the easy target, the hated person in the culture, the one that reasonable, middle-of-the-road, kinda spiritual people are free to mock, then maybe it’s us who are the Pharisees.
Jesus words to the Pharisees of his day and to the Pharisees of our day is simple: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” (Luke 18:14). Empty, vacuous declarations of self-righteousness bounce off the ceiling. But desperate, humble cries for mercy and grace reach the throne room of Heaven.
Today, social media is our “public temple” in a way. It’s where we declare who we are and what we stand for, for better or for worse. And I’m afraid we’re so quick to make sure everyone knows that we’re “not like that other guy who keeps getting it wrong.” You might substitute “obnoxious celebrity pastor” or “outrageous Hollywood entertainer” or “corrupt congressman” for tax collector. Our generation of Christians seems too eager to “not be like those other kind of Christians.” We all think we are among the most reasonable people we know.
In our lurching attempts to not be Pharisees, we become Pharisees of a different stripe. But Jesus’ words to the self-justified should haunt us and then drive us to our knees in humility and cries for mercy. These may not be the stylish prayers of the digital world. But they are the prayers Jesus seems to answer.