This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage. I’ve done some, over the years. I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy. The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero. They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom. And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc. We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees. As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over. He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.” He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He has engaged in theological debate. He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works. That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense. This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.
It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions? What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving? How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray? When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him? If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us. As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit. Come not looking for anything in return. Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy. Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.