The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 01, 2023 - 12:44:09

The Trouble with Pharisees

Devra Torres, Aug 01, 2017

There's a Gospel passage about a bunch of Pharisees lying in wait to see if Jesus would cure a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. It's a really peculiar story, for several reasons.

As my sister Rosie points out, there's no hint that the Pharisees doubted that He could do it. They had plenty of faith, if you can call it that--but they were only interested in how the healing might further their agenda. It's not just the malice; it's their utter lack of curiosity and wonder at the miracle playing out under their noses. They had "objective faith": they believed that an event could come to pass. They lacked "subjective faith": they skipped over the question of what it was about this Person that could bring about such an event. They're stuck on a just-the-facts,-Ma'am level, and they have no intention of climbing any higher.

Something else struck me: they're worried that He's going to "work" on the Sabbath, they say--but even in their cramped, technical sense of the word, that's not what He's doing. Look how He arranges things instead: He doesn't grab the man's hand, or command him to give it to Him. At least I don't get that sense--it sounds more like an invitation. The man gets to do his part: "Stretch out your hand." So technically, the Pharisees don't even have a case!  Maybe if they'd been hanging around when he bent down to make mud to rub on the blind man's eyes, they could have argued that He was engaging in manual labor on the Sabbath: bending, spitting, anointing. But the closest they could come here is to accuse Him of having provoked the man to do the work of his own healing.

He also draws the Pharisees' attention beyond the technicalities. But they're not having it. They get a chance to gain in understanding and be part of the interpersonal back-and-forth.

And He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?"

But they were silent.

They're not interested. Good and evil, life and death--minor details.

They won't engage, not even to argue or accuse. Just like when He asked the chief priests and the scribes about the baptism of John, when they

came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” 

Another self-defeating cop-out.

Jesus likes to involve the subjectivity of the ones He's helping. He asks the little boy to contribute the loaves and the fishes, rather than conjuring them out of thin air. When the woman with the hemorrhage tries to arrange a miraculous cure without His noticing--using His power but sidestepping personal interaction--He calls her on it. His objective power is real, and it effects the objective cure with no problem. But even though she's avoided the interpersonal encounter for motives of humility or fear, He's not willing to let her get away with it. I'm sure she was glad He didn't.

Lack of faith is a problem. But so is grasping at supernatural healing without getting personal, and so, especially, is the cluelessness that doesn't even have persons on its radar.