August 23, 2016 - Faith and Religion

Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin,
and have neglected the weightier things of the law:
judgment and mercy and fidelity.
But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.  
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You cleanse the outside of cup and dish,
but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.
Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may be clean.”

Matthew 23:23-26

The Pharisees are often the arch-villains of the New Testament. But to envision them as invariably evil is just too simple.  St. Paul, whose letters are most often the second reading on Sunday, affirmed that he was born and remained a proud Pharisee (Acts 23:6).  Jesus exhorted his followers to obey the Pharisees and respect their authority, but not to follow their example (Matthew 23:3).  In fact, the Pharisees were quite popular within the Jewish population of Palestine and successful evangelists among Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean (until Christianity ate their lunch).

But Jesus never confused religion with faith. 

Faith is inevitably a personal encounter with God.  Buber’s “I/Thou”, Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” or “Single One”, and St. Paul’s Damascus road experience all demonstrate that faith does not occur seated in neat rows or standing in an orderly line.  Faith is strictly between the individual and God.

Religion, on the other hand, is the expression of faith in community.   We are a social animal and everything we value we share.  Before the numinous sovereignty of God, we can’t help but experience our “creatureliness” and the mysterium tremendum of His Presence, as Rudolf Otto described it.  If we understand the majesty of God, we naturally want to approach as a group, choreograph our actions, words and songs, and offer our best.  Spirituality without religion is possible, but I suspect it never achieves its full potential.

Jesus did not tangle with the Pharisees and the Sadducees because he preferred certain denominations over others.  He didn’t endorse any particular denomination.  Rather, he objected when people treated religion and faith as synonymous.

Photo: The first chapter of Genesis written on an egg.  Israel Museum