3.02.2017

Respectability Can Ruin Us

If you attended Sunday School for any period of time, you know that the Pharisees were a favorite punching bag for Jesus.  So it may come as a surprise that there was a lot to commend about Pharisees.  They were the kind of people you wanted more of in your society: respectable, law-abiding, and God-fearing.  They took seriously the kinds of things you should take seriously, like morality and religion and tradition.  If you lived back then, you'd want to be a Pharisee.

So why does Jesus single them out for so much shade?  The pat answer is that they knew the letter of the law but their hearts were far from living out its spirit.  And then we go about our way, ironically feeling the kind of smugness that we imagine Pharisees felt back in the day for being so upstanding.

This would be humorous if it wasn't so deadly.  Respectability, so deeply coveted by many of us, can be the very path to eternal ruin.  It is crazy to think that something that seems so right, that we will fight to gain and keep, can lead to such wrong.  But it's what Jesus in the Bible suggests.  If we don't see it, we are yet again guilty of defanging Scripture of its shock value.

Respectability is hugely important to me.  I come from an upper-middle-class Taiwanese-American immigrant family.  Deeply embedded in my DNA is the imprint of respectability on every value I hold dearly: do well in school, get a decent job, do good works, avoid wrongdoing, manage your finances well, don't embarrass the family.  This is the good life, not the path to ruin, right?

But this is why Jesus in the Bible is far more provocative than we make Him out to be.  He is constantly challenging social norms because He knows that as good as respectability is, it can easily lead you eternally astray, as with so many well-regarded but spiritually lost Pharisees.

Read the four gospel accounts again.  Look at them with contemporary eyes.  Touching lepers, conversing with a woman at a public well, washing the feet of your followers: these are not metaphors to be studied in Sunday School, but rather are human acts that respectable people would simply not be able to do.

And that is why respectability is so dangerous.  Because it binds us to a public image that we cannot free ourselves from when offered the way to true life.

It is not hard to think about the modern version of those human acts, and how difficult it would be for someone like me to engage in them.  It is why the respectable man is often further from the Kingdom of God than the pauper or the sinner.  And it is why we must guard ourselves against being bound so, until we can no longer free ourselves.
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