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Peaches & Pharisees

I have to admit that I am rather partial to peaches. Fresh or tinned I like them both and they are a wonderful companion for jelly, ice cream or evaporated milk. They go quite nicely with fresh cream as well and as part of a nice home made trifle they are sublime. They are without doubt one of my favourite fruits.

I remember an occasion one summer when my wife Jane and I had been shopping. I had bought some fresh peaches and as we were packing our shopping into bags  the scent of fresh peach  just hit me. It was one of those “I want to eat it now” moments.

Normally, when I eat a fresh peach, the fruit is washed  and I cut it into slices but on this occasion all that went out of the window and I just bit into it. It was soft and it was juicy and I was ready to take my second bite when I just happened to take a look at my peach. Thank heaven I did because there was a little worm squirming around inside it. He was dancing the twist for all he was worth. As you can imagine it was quite upsetting but I am grateful for small mercies however, at least I found a whole worm in my peach and not half of one.

I don’t know if Jesus knew anything about my peach but he did know about things that looked good on the outside but were rotten on the inside.

The conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees were often confrontational and in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus once again has his problems with them. The Pharisees always seem to have this “holier than thou” attitude especially when it concerns Jesus.

The Pharisees are totally convinced that their laws and religious observances are correct. As far as they are concerned Jesus violated many of their laws. He mixed freely with Tax Collectors and sinners, they question his methods of teaching, they condemn him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus forgives people’s sins which was blasphemy as far as the Pharisees were concerned and they are forever trying to turn the people against him by trying to trick him into saying the wrong thing, but, as we know, Jesus is always too clever for them. To the Pharisees, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was unthinkable.

To get to the root of the problem Jesus has with them in this reading we have to go back a few verses. While in Judea, Jesus accepts an invitation to a meal from a Pharisee. Before they eat Pharisees carry out a ritual washing of their hands but Jesus does not use the water provided to join in this ritual. By failing to wash Jesus meets his host’s disapproval who for his part obviously points this out to Jesus.

The washing of the hands is not a hygienic matter. To Jesus, the issue is religious hypocrisy. The Pharisees clean their hands but fail to clean their hearts.

When Jesus speaks he speaks not only with intensity but also with sharpness. To him the Pharisees had set their own standard of holiness. They were concerned with observing trifling matters but neglected the love of God. To Jesus they are no more than hypocrites. They are more concerned about appearances than about the things that really matter. They do what they do in order to be noticed by others. They look good on the outside but there is nothing of worth inside. This is what Jesus is opposed to, to him the Pharisees were so busy following the law they were missing out on the most important thing – to love others. They followed God out of a sense of obligation.

When I read this passage I am reminded so much about the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee in the parable is pictured as the epitome of a religion of good works. If anybody belongs in the temple then this man does. He has much to boast about. He is a paragon of religious zeal. As he says his prayers he is particular to remind God that he is a good man. He is faithful to his vows, he fasts, he tithes, he takes his religious duties very seriously. He is quick to thank God that he is not like other people. He thanks God that he is not like the tax collector who stands beside him and places the tax collector in the same company as thieves, rogues, and adulterers.

Tac Collectors were hated people, they were collaborators who robbed their own people to line their own pockets. No self respecting Pharisee would pass the time of day with a tax collector. The Pharisee thought that he was the better person both morally and socially.

The tax collector for his part just asks for God’s forgiveness, he knows that he is a sinner. Jesus says that this is the man who goes home justified.

The problem with the Pharisee is that he just does not understand that when we stand before God then we are all equal. The ground at the foot of the cross is level, dead level, there is no “them and us”  We are in the presence of a God who is holy and is just. The Pharisee may impress us with his piety but God sees who we really are.

Today Jesus is challenging each of us to take a good look at why we do what we do. Do we do it just because it is expected of us? Do we act in a certain way because we want others to think well of us? Or do we choose to do something because it’s the right and proper thing to do?

Whilst we know that Jesus refused to wash his hands in order to make a point, I’m sure that he would be telling us today to make sure that we wash our hands often and for at least 20 seconds.

Let us pray that everything that we do today and indeed, every day, will reflect our love for God and for our neighbour.

Amen.

Patrick Williams

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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