“Religious, but Not Spiritual”: Jesus and the Pharisees

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned singer-songwriter Marcus Mumford’s desire to follow Jesus but distance himself from “the culture of Christianity,” a combination critiqued by UCC pastor Lillian Daniel, author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough, in a recent op-ed.

She might have added that Jesus himself was deeply religious, so bound up with the culture of Judaism that his Jewish followers kept engaging in Jewish religious practices after his ascension, and his Roman murderers assumed that Jesus-followers were simply another sect of religious Jews. See Kevin DeYoung’s dismantling of last year’s viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” in which he summarizes Jesus’ religiosity:

We love the Jesus that hates religion.

The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion.

But more than that: what do we make of the fact that Jesus seems to spend an awful lot of time in the company of those who not only practice religion, but a religion of the “all law and no gospel” kind that DeYoung does reject?

Why in the gospel accounts is Jesus so frequently hanging around with the Pharisees — the same men he likens to “whitewashed tombs,” people who have the appearance of righteousness but are actually “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28)? Why doesn’t Jesus distance himself from the “religious but not spiritual” of his day, as many of the “spiritual but not religious” of this day seek to distance themselves from the “culture of Christianity”?

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew
Caravaggio, “The Calling of St. Matthew” – Wikimedia

Consider Matthew 9:9-13… After Jesus calls that gospel’s author as a disciple, he then eats dinner with him and other “tax collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees see this and ask Jesus’ disciples why he keeps such company. Jesus answers, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.'”

Having come off reading the Mumford/Daniel discussion of what it means to follow Jesus and/or practice Christianity… I was struck not that Jesus is eating with tax collectors, but that the Pharisees are there, too. When Jesus says that he has come “to call not the righteous but sinners,” aren’t the “sinners” the Pharisees to whom he is saying those words as much as the tax collectors whom they self-righteously shun? Isn’t Jesus presenting himself as the Christ for both groups?

In Matthew 12:1-14, the Pharisees are there to see Jesus’ disciples breaking the Law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath, and rather than simply stalking off angrily, he tries to teach them (“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here,” v 6). And where does Jesus go after this incident, but “…into their [the Pharisees’] synagogue….” (v 9)? Of course, this pericope ends with the Pharisees plotting to destroy Jesus and so he leaves the synagogue, but mere verses later there he is again, talking with them.

(See also Luke 7:36-50, 11:37-54, and 14:1-24, each an occasion when Jesus accepts an invitation to dine with Pharisees. He does not refrain from rebuking them, but the fact that he keeps sharing fellowship with them seems not insignificant.)

Peter Paul Rubens, "Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee" (Luke 7) - Wikipaintings.org
Peter Paul Rubens, “Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee” (Luke 7) – Wikipaintings.org

So to those who wish to separate from the culture of Christianity and instead want to focus on following Jesus…

I strongly doubt that such a path of discipleship would actually lead out the door of churches, even those that seem the most pharisaical (“marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness,” according to Webster’s). On the contrary, if you truly follow Jesus, you should probably expect to spend lots of time sharing worship, fellowship, and conversation with the Pharisees of our time.


One thought on ““Religious, but Not Spiritual”: Jesus and the Pharisees

  1. Amen. And I think that is really only the beginning of this whole church vs. spiritual discussion. I’m also not opposed to taking this a step further and trying to push back against the non-denominational trend that has been gaining steam. I agreed with Roger Olson’s “Why I Like Denominations” blog post from Oct. 11, 2012 (had to look that up) in that denominations are valuable because they show us where we come from and show what has stood the test of time in terms of church practice. Yes, they definitely have their flaws, but shouldn’t that make us want to reform them rather than abandon them? Along with Olson, too, I think that denominations (though perhaps not all are necessary) display the varied faith of Christianity rather than just the fractured one. The key then seems to be to push ourselves to be ecumenical, but not to abandon our roots.

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