the witness of a Pharisee
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:1-21
I am a little ashamed of my name, though not by what it means. Nikodemos – it’s Greek. Nike: victory. Demos: of the people. My name means “victory of the people.” You might wonder, “What’s shameful about that?” It honestly seems more than a little presumptuous – but not more so than someone naming their child “Jesus” – or savior. Nikodemos – for some, it may even seem to imply a lack of obedience to the system. For surely we are part of a domination system that keeps victory and people apart – that assures comfort for some and distress for most. That starts to get at why I might be ashamed of the name.
We are and have been under the domination of one empire or another for most of the past thousand years – under Greek speaking domination for one quarter of that time. It would be easy to say that it is the natural order of things – that some are subordinate to others – that it is normal to have the livelihood squeezed out of a people again and again, age after age…. The patriarchs and prophets didn’t think so. Their response to the domination system, whether it was home grown or imposed from afar, was to evoke the jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven every fifty years, all land is returned to the families who once held it, all indentured servants are freed. I’m not sure I believe that ever actually happened, but if it could happen, we might experience God’s shalom.
Over the generations there have been different responses to the injustice of systematic oppression – home-grown or imported. Some have resisted violently and foolishly – the Zealots all too often in collaboration with thugs and thieves. Some, like the elite landowners, in collaboration with the temple hierarchy and foreign rulers, have chosen to participate in the domination system – like the Sadducees. Those are the people I come from, thus my Greek name. I reject that response like I reject the family that has abandoned the right teaching of the law and the prophets. Instead, I have chosen to become a Pharisee – striving to achieve the whole of the covenant – living a life of separation by practice if not by location – to turn my back on my own family who have absorbed the Greek and imperial ways, and tolerated the worship of other gods in the sanctuary of the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Leah and Rachel and Jacob.
That doesn’t mean we Pharisees don’t go to the temple to pray and seek atonement. It pains me to admit that by rejecting my parents’ way I have broken one of the fundamental Laws of Moses – to honor my parents. For our people, family is everything. Without family we are nothing. And so just last week I found myself there in the temple, seeking atonement during the feast of the Passover, when that rabbi from Galilee created such a commotion. He seemed to place himself at odds with the Sadducees. What gall he had to walk right into darkness of the lion’s den and speak with such vigor and confidence – bringing corruption and betrayal to the light – right under the nose of those who have abandoned God’s covenant and betrayed God’s people.
He is the enemy of my enemy – and thus in theory should be my friend. I needed to find out more. But I could not risk being associated with his foolish behavior – could he be a Zealot? Nor did I want to be seen with his bumbling followers who flaunted the Sabbath laws of cleanliness and holiness. So I went – in darkness seeking illumination – at night seeking the light. What I found was a man of astonishing wisdom and compassion. He was a man who spoke with a brilliance that surpassed any Pharisee or rabbi I had known. And that was not all – nor was it the most striking thing about him. Even in the darkness he seemed to see me and know me – as if from my mother’s womb. He seemed to understand my compromised heritage. He spoke not of being devoted to what is right, but of being devoted to what is love. He identified love as the single most defining characteristic of the God of our ancestors – like the love of a parent for a child. Like the love of my parents for me even though I see things in a different light.
The very idea is unsettling to me. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would mean for me to abandon the pursuit of what is right for the pursuit of what is love. It’s as if he holds within himself an opening into the light at the beginning of creation – not the light that is shed by sun and moon and stars and flame – but the light that comes before – the light of self-giving love that pours forth in the words and works of God: let there be…!
It is the light that comes before all things. He made no demand and no promise to me, but showed me that I am not determined by the birth of the flesh – that I can yet be born into the healing, nurturing, restoring light of God’s love. He became the lamp that lights my path – the light of recovery in the darkness of my soul – and I knew our paths would cross again.
As I turned to leave in the darkness of the night, I thought I heard him say, “Follow me.”
Or was that a voice from somewhere deep inside.