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This is super fun—a really epic Actually,

one of the best, one might say. It starts this way:

Actually, Megan, the Pharisees were the ones following God’s law to a tee. They were the strictest of the law followers. What they weren’t doing is loving their neighbors. This was Jesus saying “calling ‘Lord, Lord’ means nothing if you don’t love.”

And goes on:

In other words, if I read this passage and think I’m like Jesus, with a license to harshly mock the people who are “getting it wrong,” I’ve missed the point of the story. I’m not Jesus in the story – I’m the Pharisee, …

And concludes this way:

… constantly in danger of getting it wrong. This isn’t Jesus showing us how to “own the libs.”  This is Jesus telling us that the greatest commandment is love, and if we miss that we’ve missed everything.

The tweet he’s sorting out is this one, which includes a nice big screenshot of an actual Bible passage:

These are Jesus’ words for some of his neighbors. The only-gentle, only-soft Christ is a myth, perpetrated to allow wolves to come into church and lead some to Hell by preaching a Jesus who did not harshly confront the sin of those who were brazenly rewriting God’s law.

She is responding to this tweet:

I’ve searched my New Testament and I just can’t find the verses where Jesus said to mock our neighbor and gloat about doing so. 

I do love this so much. Let’s just go through Vischer’s Actually and see what we have. First of all, he claims that

“the Pharisees were the ones following God’s law to a tee. They were the strictest of the law followers. What they weren’t doing is loving their neighbors. This was Jesus saying “calling ‘Lord, Lord’ means nothing if you don’t love.”

There are two charming things about this particular claim. The first is that Vischer appears to be leaning heavily into the custom of so many to pit “love” against the entire rest of the scriptural canon. The problem that the Pharisees had, see, is that they had not love. That was their only problem. It is a popular though desultory way of looking at the Bible. For some reason, it never seems to get old. 

The second charming thing about it is that it isn’t true. Jesus was never angry with the Pharisees for keeping the Law at the expense of love. He was angry with them for not keeping the Law. They didn’t actually follow it. They followed it according to their own specifications, which seemed quite strident, but, in actual point of fact, made the law doable, thereby erasing the first purpose of the Law.

The most well-beloved example of this is that where the Law told a man not to commit adultery–a command which unhappily conjoined the inclinations of a man’s heart with the actions of his body–the Pharisee skipped out on the heart part, what is more usually called lust, by saying that if a man never talked to a woman who wasn’t his wife he would be enabled to keep the Law. According to this way of being, a foul luster could be a “law keeper” and go his merry way into hell, dragging everyone along behind him.

But my favorite was the number of steps a person could take on the Sabbath. The Lord said to keep the Sabbath holy and do no work, to rest and trust God. And so the Pharisee made many regulations that kept a person psychologically and emotionally, nay even spiritually busy, so that no rest, and certainly no trust, need ever be sought. No Pharisee ever had to look into his soul and discover that he could not rest, that the commandment to rest and trust was beyond him, because he could carefully number his steps and make sure no one around him was lighting a fire, or worse, healing of picking grain.

And so Jesus, who is, of course, the embodiment of Love, was very angry and took to calling the Pharisees by the names that suited them best—blind guides, white-washed tombs. Of course they lacked love, and the manifestation of their lack of love was their lack of obedience. The person they least loved was God. It wasn’t that they were resounding gongs, they were isolators. And this was a great tragedy, for that was the very thing they said they most wanted to avoid. And a great irony, for their additions to the Law obscured the nature and purpose of the Law. And they told other people to follow them, which then increased their folly. In not loving God, they were not able to love their neighbors.

So, we see, Vischer is wrong. The Pharisees didn’t follow the Law to a T. They were lawbreakers in the most essential way that any of us are, in that they externally kept what suited them and thereby took the name of the Lord in vain and worshiped themselves. They loved themselves and their money (something Jesus says often) and did not read the scriptures, for if they had, they would have seen that all of the passages were about Jesus. 

In the second tweet, Phil virtuously gets it right, though only by chance. He is the Pharisee in this scenario, for he is recasting the scriptures in a way that benefits what he already believes to be true. It’s very clever. As I said, this business of taking Love and holding it as the measure of all the scriptures is something progressives particularly seem inclined to do. It is, Actually, very like what the Pharisees did during the time of Jesus. Most people don’t take the trouble to read the Bible very carefully. They like to have other people do it for them and don’t pay too close attention to the nuances of the words. When a person is busily tithing his cumin and blowing a trumpet while he does it, the crowd imagines he must know what he is about.  When they have any cumin of their own, they will take a few sprigs along to the temple. That’s where the “blind guide” bit comes in. The Pharisee wants other people to do what he is doing, but he doesn’t see that what he is doing is wrong.

So also with the Love Canon. Love, the way the ordinary western person conceives of it, is not the Love of Jesus. You cannot say, “love your neighbor” anymore without a lengthy explanation, because what people think is loving is wrong, and is in fact hateful. 

Love today means the unquestioning affirmation of the inclinations and feelings of the “beloved.” To “love” someone means to never bother to tell them you’re sorry and other such tripe. If they want you to use some other pronouns, the “loving” thing is to do it. For the Christian today who wants to use the word “love,” or follow in the way of Jesus, explanations have to be made to distinguish between these two, mutually exclusive uses of the word. Vischer, as you can see in the tweets, doesn’t do that, and so you may conclude that he is, in fact, in the category of the biblical Pharisee.

As for the larger discussion, to which Vischer is responding, I don’t think there is any particular commandment in the Bible to gloat over one’s enemies, but God certainly says in at least one place that he laughs his own enemies to scorn. That isn’t really what Jesus is doing in the gospels. He is warning the Pharisees in the hope that they will repent and trust in him. His harsh words are the kind used by someone calling to a person about to go over a precipice that danger lies just ahead. Wake up. You have committed your way to death. You think you are serving God but, Actually, your rejection of the scriptures you claim to know show you to be God’s enemy. 

It is for this reason that I forbear to use my own Actually. And I hope that Vischer will turn around from his present course and heed the warning calls of other Tweeters.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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