A second look at a Pharisee

I remember the one-room church at Cheroor village in Kerala State, India, where as a young boy, our family worshipped every Sunday. It was more than two miles away – walking. I recall the wooden benches without back support, and no washroom facilities. If the room was full, particularly on special days, we kids were told to sit on the floor – no exception. Good Friday services were called Agony Service. It truly was. In all, it was a three-hour service, from 2 to 5 pm, with heavy readings of the trial, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus. I didn’t understand much of it, but I cried for Jesus and disliked the Pharisees. Am I the only one?

Has the frequent reading about the Pharisees, their words and deeds against Jesus, particularly during the Lenten seasons, created a general dislike in Christians, without even knowing it? Is it fair to harbour bitter feelings over a group of people? Is the word Pharisee a synonym for heartless bigot? Whatever the background, I chose this article, not to be controversial, but to make one think it through, as it has forced me to.

For the sake of my Hindu friends, the Pharisee is a Jewish devotee of their God, Jehovah; a strict adherent of their religious books. In today’s terminology, he is a fundamentalist. They impose their strong beliefs in matters of dress code, food, fasting and feasting, or times of prayer, etc. Pharisees taught the traditions of their fathers and levitical ritualism. By way of a general comparison, a Pharisee is like a Hindu Brahmin. Their priest is just like a Namboodiri.

Is there anything wrong with that? It is commendable that they work tirelessly to keep formalism, fight against any violation of their traditions, laws and regulations. Their orthodoxy did help preserve the Old Testament for us. Remember Cecil B. Demille’s classic movie, The 10 Commandments, with Charleston Heston acting as Moses?

What is it that is not-so-good about them? I believe the defect of virtues (read my blog on the Defects of Virtues) started to show up as it always does. They, not all, became super-spiritual and lost the need for moderation. Like many other religions, they felt superior finding fault in any that do not comply to their standards. This decline always leads to intolerance. I wonder whether this is the same root cause that produced the caste system in India.

In the fullness of time, Jesus came. Early on, there was a degree of tolerance – even admiration. When Jesus declared his manifesto at the village synagogue in Nazareth, quoting from Isaiah (Luke 4:16- 24), the line was drawn. From then on, there was continuing conflict, from simple knit-picking to full-blown theological confrontation. A suspicious threat from this young Galilean to their centuries-old tradition, and the strong possibility of losing their grip on the religious and institutional system, led the Pharisees to sink low and to conspire with the foreign power (Romans) to betray and crucify Jesus. This was in spite of Jesus’ assurance: “think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am come not to destroy but to fulfil” (Mathew 5:17).

hasidic jews

Not all Pharisees, however, were against Jesus. To name a few, Nicodemus, a ruler of their council, who came by night to see Jesus. Then there was the parliamentarian/ theologian/philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, Gamaliel (student of famous teacher Hillel). He was like a one-man University of his time. St. Paul, a former Pharisee himself, respectfully acknowledged that he was privileged to sit and learn at the feet of Gamaliel. I am not sure if Joseph of Arimathea was a Pharisee. The Bible records that many Jews believed in Jesus, including Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews who dwelt there. He prayed for healing for Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul). The early Christians were all Jews – Pharisees included. One should not judge, or paint all Pharisees with the same brush.

How did Jesus deal with them? In many ways, Jesus was as meticulous with the Law as a Pharisee. For example, whenever Jesus healed a leper, he insisted the cleansed leper show himself first to the priest, according to the law. Jesus believed like a Pharisee when he said “for verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mathew 5:18). Of course, he refuted or corrected them with their own scriptures. He displayed his righteous anger when they loaded heavy burdens on simple folks. He cleaned up the temple single-handedly. Yet, in spite of all the harassment he received from their hands, Jesus loved them. I have at home in Newmarket, Ontario, an old painting by Giovanni, of Jesus sitting on Mount Olive by night and pensively looking at Jerusalem. The painting captures the deep concern he felt for his people – Pharisees included – portraying his sorrowful words “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,……how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chicken under her wings, and ye would not” (Mathew 23:37).

At home in India, my mother always bred chicken (hen and 10 or 15 chicks at a time). One of their fierce predators is the eagle. The mother hen always knew when an eagle was circling in the sky. When the danger was imminent, she would gather in a matter of seconds and hide the chicks under her wings. How descriptive is this scene of the Saviour’s care for the Pharisees.

A mother hen and her young chicks...

What do we learn from all of this? It is a given that a Believer can only hate sin but not the sinner. Is it possible that the spirit of a Pharisee is dwelling in all of us? It often remains submerged. But when one starts to disagree, argue over a talking point, dogma, or debate over a denominational stand, does it not raise its ugly head? Is it constrained only to the religious arena? Have you watched political debates lately? Have you witnessed the malice and anger, even among friends, family members and Christians? Is there a danger that what we hate in ourselves, we are incensed when we see it in others? Does it not eclipse the basic Christian virtues we all desire?

Let moderation, my blog theme, (Philippians 4:5) always rule supreme. Whether Jew or Gentile, Pharisee or Sadducee, Hindu or Muslim – in our thinking, conversation or discussions – may the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ govern.

God bless, Danny Paul

“I AM SORRY” said The Prime Minister

I AM SORRY. These three simple words are powerful. They can change many for good!

What prompted me to write this is a clip on the BBC World News of 13 February 2013. Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, apologized to the Stolen Generation, because although it was not his fault, what happened was wrong and it was his Prime Ministerial duty to apologize. Because the British wanted Australia to be a white colony (just imagine that!), they took young Aboriginal children from their families in order to “breed the black out of them”. They are called the Stolen Generation and that is why Kevin Rudd apologized. Why, O why did it take so long? I thought to myself, though horribly overdue, what a beautiful and commendable thing to do; what a great example for many other nations to emulate!

My blog is not political, far from it. It is definitely not my desire to show the guilt of people or nations, and their pride and prejudice. There is plenty of guilt to go around. Every nation owns their own fair share, including India where I come from, in their treatment of the Dalits and Untouchables: Canada, where I now reside, in their dealings with the First Nations. The United States is no exception. I recently read a book entitled “The Trail of Tears”, the rise and fall of the Cherokee nation. My objective, I repeat, is not to blemish the reputation of these countries but to show the power of a divine action, when human beings can whole heartedly, yet simply say those three words “I am sorry”.

Though young, I have experienced a little bit of this back in India, with their struggle for independence. Persons, families, communities or nations that are first colonized – later subjugated and ruled – lose their self-respect. This can later on affect or create an awful inferiority complex.

Grace and I took a trip to Indonesia and Australia in 1996. We wanted to see the country and meet the people. So we travelled (by car, bus, and train) from Melbourne, Caneberra, Sydney, Brisbane to Cairns. During the train journey from Brisbane to Cairns we made friends with an Aboriginal lady and her 1 year old child. I love little ones. I can spend hours in the Malls just watching babies. There is something beautiful about their innocence, dependence, inquisitive look and smile. When they cry I cannot bear it. I got up, went to the mother and the baby and put out my hands. The baby looked at me for a while, judging me, then smiled and took up the offer. I carried the baby, played with her, sang a Malayalam (my mother tongue) lullaby, and walked up and down the aisle and handed her back to her mother. There was an Australian gentleman sitting close to us. He had watched me and wanted to carry the baby and play with her as well. Perhaps he was a dad or a grand dad like me missing the grand children. It was then that I beheld a deep anger come over the mother’s face. She refused to give the baby to him and said sharply, “No.” Evidently she had her legitimate reasons. For me, It was an utter surprise, both sad and at the same time very embarrassing. I will never forget that experience.

Coming back to the apology by the Prime Minister of Australia, I recognize an apology is normally a two-way affair. It is a give and take. There ought to be a giver and a taker. There must not only be an offer but also an acceptance to unleash this power. Jesus, the great story teller had a lot to say on this. He taught in parables. This particular one is popularly called the “prodigal Son”, depicting the relationship between a loving father and his wayward younger son. Of course, Jesus was teaching about the relationship between a loving God the Heavenly Father and Man. In order for this blog to be brief and at the same time for you to enjoy reading this classic parable in its original beauty, I request you to read it yourself as recorded in St.Luke 15:11-24.

Yes, giving an apology or accepting one, or simply saying sorry from one’s heart will make a world of difference. In fact, this is the first step in mending any relationship, whether it is between husbands and wives, parents and children, between grandparents and grandchildren, between neighbours and between religious leaders. By the way, I do not want to leave the impression that saying sorry is simple or effortless. No; on the contrary it is both difficult and many times painful; but worth it.

Grace and I were visiting New York, World Fair (from Calcutta) in 1965 when we took time to visit the United Nations building. There we stood speechless gazing at the masterpiece bronze statue by Soviet Artist, Evgeny Vuchetich. What was so powerful and moving was not only the statue in itself but the famous caption, the quotation from the Bible, Isaiah 2:4. “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.

Let me conclude with this question; am I exaggerating when I say, that many a conflict heading towards hurt, for self or others, has a potential chance to cease, if only we have learned to say from our hearts these three words “I am sorry”?

God bless, Danny Paul

Son of Man – Son of God

Jesus combined strength with tenderness (see previous blog), demonstrating this balance of excellence. Today I will explain how Jesus combined both attributes of the Son of Man and the Son of God. I realize the depth of this subject. Who am I to write on this difficult subject with my limitations? Besides, I am far from my home in Canada, and my library. On second thought, this can be a blessing in disguise, when I can write my own reasoning, free of the fear of reprisal.

Jesus purposely adopted the name “the Son of Man”. He most likely chose that name from the book of Ezekiel. This was a genius move. Sometimes we can get so familiar reading the Bible that we fail to catch the unique and distinctive features of certain terms or phrases. Ask yourself “Why did he not accept the honourable title of a Prophet, or at least a Rabbi or the Son of David etc.?” He could have easily taken any or all of them.

In the first place – in line with his Mission Statement – He came to seek and to save that which is lost. How could he accomplish the mission without fully identifying with human beings? After all, didn’t He voluntarily take the form of man?

fsd13_pg_009_ext_full

Furthermore, He identified himself as an ordinary person. In fact, he was a carpenter for most of his life – 30 years out of 33. In many parts of the world, even today, a carpenter is of the lower strata in society. The religious leaders asked, in condescension, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? (Mark 6:3)” Do not forget that carpentry, in those days, didn’t include driving around in a bad-ass F-150 with power tools and a heavy load of respect. It is generally accepted that Joseph –his father – died earlier, leaving the family responsibility to Jesus.

Jesus – this lowly son of man – wanted to show that his religion is not only for the privileged, but for all. Coming from India, I am well aware of the struggles between classes. Comparing the Jewish classifications, he was neither Brahmin (priestly) nor Kshatria (kingly). He made sure citizens in his new kingdom would be casteless and colour blind, welcome from ALL parts of the world.

He also wanted to demonstrate that ordinary folks can become extraordinary! Allow me to go a step higher. As son of man, he respected human personalities. Remember Zacchaeus? This little man was a hated publican and Sinner. But to Jesus he was the son of Abraham (Luke 19:9)!

Jesus subjected himself to human needs; hunger, thirst, rest, sleep, and emotions. He purposely did not isolate himself to a monastery or a cave. On the contrary, he was a party man. Recall the wedding at Cana, or the party hosted by Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36). There are more examples, but I must stop here.

Though fully man, he did not waver one inch from his belief and claims that he was the Son of God. He boldly appropriated, from the very beginning, the prophecy of Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19) concerning himself. Recall the famous few verses of St. John’s gospel 1:1-5. Then there is the most popular verse of The Bible (John 3:16). Notice the words, the “only begotten son” of God. Remember those famous words “I am”. I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, before Abraham was I am, I am the door, I am the way, the truth and the life, and so on. Indeed, there is too much to mention in this brief blog. These are very strong words. No religious leader came even close. Kings and kingdoms, emperors and empires, religious leaders and thinkers, prophets and holy men have come and gone, but the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus started is still advancing. No one can stop it.

Throughout his life, he maintained one goal: establishing a kingdom! Not provincial, but universal and eternal. How did he do it? He combined in his own life, without any defects of virtues (read my blog on this), the two most important factors – fully Man and fully God. You see this co-relation in the healing of the man with paralysis, recorded in St. Mark 2:7-12. The Doctor’s Law of his time said “only God can forgive sins”. Verse 10 confirms that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins as well as heal.

I would like to end this blog with a quotation from St. Thomas* the Doubter, one of the 12 disciples. Thomas’ final recognition and exclamation of Jesus was; My Lord and My God. St. John 20:28.

God bless,

Danny Paul

*On a personal note, I studied at St. Thomas College, Trichur, India. The tradition strongly suggests that St. Thomas landed in Kerala, India (my birth place), in the very first century, before Christianity spread to Europe. The popular road in Madras, South India, is called St. Thomas Road. This leads to St. Thomas mount, where Thomas was martyred. The Doubting Thomas lived, preached and died for the Son of Man and the Son of God!

tomb of st thomas

Holy Cow – Part II

After much discussion on this topic, I offer my own interpretation of the holy cows of India. First, though, in response to “when does respect stop and worship begin?” one of my readers commented: Respect is deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities or achievements. Worship is formal expression of reverence, devotion and adoration for deity. Personally I think holy cow is an example of a crossover or an overlap.

Cows on the streets in India

Cows on the streets in India

Allow me to explain.

The cow is one of the most useful animals to mankind, supplying milk, butter, buttermilk, yogurt, cheese, clarified butter (also known as ghee). In addition, food and sweets are often made out of milk products. Hindus knew it more than 3,000 years ago. They used butter for burning lamps and even dried cow dung for cooking and heat. In short, Indians utilized – or depended – on cows. However, cows are not deities in Hindu religion.

There are references in their epic stories that some holy men, in their need, were sustained by cows. One incarnation used a bullock (Nandi) for transportation. By the way, bullock carts are still used in India today for ploughing the fields and for transportation. Lord Krishna, another incarnation was a cowherd, just like king David, the Shepherd king, who wrote the famous 23rd Psalm. There is a similarity between the cows of Hindus and the sheep of Christianity. Christians picture Jesus as the gentle shepherd.

I believe it was a tactical move to cross over from deep respect to religious respect. It immensely affected the social and economical necessities of life, and rightly so. Without a religious influence, would cows have been protected or unwisely slaughtered just to feed an exploding population? It is not uncommon to see some garland and offer the usual vanakam with folded hands. Indians meet each other with Vanakam, or Namasthe. Handshake is a western import. This does not signify worship!

No matter how I explain this phenomenon of crossing over from respect to devotion, it will not be accepted by all. Christians are no exception. For example, many Christians venerate Mary, the highly favoured, and pray to her to intercede – even calling her the mother of God. When we immigrated to Canada, many of our friends gave us medals (trinkets) of St. Joseph for travelling mercies (I still have them). Don’t Christians travel to Jerusalem and bring back their own trinkets? Just like visits to Mecca, Medina, or Benares? Of course, they omit the word pilgrimage.

On a personal note, cows sustained our family during the lean years of Second World War. Times were tough. I remember walking to the market – Ration Card in hand – for rice and kerosene! Dad lost his job. Mom – mother of 8 – started teaching to make ends meet. During this time, Mr. Israel, my mother’s only brother, (they were orphans and were very close to each other) recognizing the need of our family, BOUGHT A COW FOR HER! This cow Kalyani, then Kannu, and then Ponnu, sustained our family. We had enough milk for the whole family and some for our immediate neighbour (kind of like barter). It was almost like the Menorah! Did we worship our cows? No! We worshipped God Almighty who supplied us the cow. Did we love and respect the cows? Yes, a hundred times over! Besides, they were part of the family!

holy cows3

I did not think about this crossover seriously until an old classmate of mine enquired; does your God need rest like our Gods? Of course, he was referring to Genesis, when God, after creating the world in six days, took rest on the seventh day; referred to again in the Decalogue. This day of rest, called the Sabbath, was absolutely necessary to relax, meditate, play, worship and spend time with the family. Is today’s lack of which the major contributing factor for so-called stress, breakdowns, broken relationships, etc? So who needed rest – God or man? Have you asked this question yourself?

Now why did I choose this subject of Holy Cow particularly in relation to my theme In Search of moderation? How does it relate to the balance of all virtues or excellence? I am learning to cultivate the more excellent way (even in my old age) to be slow in saying or joking or criticizing those of different background, culture, language or religion, before I present the love of God through Jesus Christ. This reminds me of the prophet Ezekiel. You see, he had to proclaim some harsh words and warning to his people. But he was not ready until “he sat where they sat” (Ezekiel 3:15). Is it not similar to the Native American saying “judge not my brother until I walk in his moccasins for a mile”?

This is precisely the reason why Jesus did not want his disciples to go beyond the border of Israel with the gospel. They had their baggage and were not ready yet. They had not “sat where they sat”. They had to wait till the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of love.

God bless, Danny Paul