Resist the Pharisee Temptation on Social Media

JANUARY 8, 2021  |  DANIEL DARLING©LightstockSHARETWEETEMAIL

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If you could have chosen one type of person to cancel in the first century, it would have been a tax collector. Jewish people, rightly skeptical of Roman power, viewed tax collectors as turncoats, those willingly colluding with the government to collect heavy taxes while taking a hefty commission off the top. Their work was gross, profiting off the economic misery of their own people.

In the Gospels, tax collectors—often referred to as “publicans”—were frequently lumped in with flagrant sinners as social bottom-feeders.

So when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples a lesson on repentance, forgiveness, and genuine faith, his choice of a tax collector as the hero came across as strange, almost insulting. And for him to choose a Pharisee as a foil was even more offensive.

And yet listen to the way Luke frames Jesus’s parable: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9).

Who Are the Good People?

The Pharisees were the good people. They were rightly disgusted at the corrupt public servants who chased down their fellow citizens on behalf of the government and skimmed money off the top. And yet in this parable, who is the most aware of his own sin? It’s the publican, who went to the temple with lowered head and heavy heart, confessing his sin and begging God for mercy.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

Have mercy on me, a sinner.

At the same time, the Pharisee—the one known in the community for benevolence and goodness, who could be depended on to finger-wag the greedy—was the least self-aware and the farthest from mercy. Listen to him and hear the echoes of our age:

“God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.” (Luke 18:11–12)

I’m a good person. I’m on the right side of all the right issues. And I’m here to publicly declare this to those not as good as me.

Our Pharisee Culture

From COVID to racial unrest to a divisive political election, there was no shortage of ways in 2020 to trust in ourselves and look down on everyone else. Brands are quick to remind us they’re on the side of science, against racism, and want us to vote. And our social platforms are like modern-day temples where, like the Pharisee, we can clarify multiple times a day that we are not like those grifting public servants. Even at home, we are not immune to displaying our creeds on lawn signs.

For Christians, there is value in letting the world know where we stand, declaring the truth, and being ready to “give a defense to anyone” (1 Pet. 3:15). We shouldn’t hesitate to use our voices to stand up for the vulnerable and against injustice. And yet our words can so easily morph from prophetic witness to Pharisaical tribal signaling. In an era where it has become a cultural rite to declare that we’re on the right side of history on every issue, Christians are not immune to this. We are tempted to broadcast our own righteousness by letting everyone know—on social media, in articles and blogs, even in published books—that we are not like those other kinds of Christians.

In an era where it has become a cultural rite to declare that we on the right side of history on every issue, Christians are not immune to Phariseeism.

Consider the story our church websites sometimes tell. “A New Testament church” implies, well, that other evangelical congregations are unfaithful to the New Testament. “A different kind of church experience” implies that the experience at every other church in town isn’t all that great. Or peruse a list of popular books or op-eds that get published in secular outlets. Often a key theme is differentiation: I am different than the Christians you dislike.

Social media may be the most public forum for this kind of Pharisee. Here we dunk on the worst, cherry-picked extremes from other traditions and tribes in order to let the world know we are better—more sophisticated, more biblical, more pure. And the algorithms encourage this! The way to go viral is to call out someone else with incendiary language that leaves our critics seething and our fans cheering.

Learn Humility from Jesus—and Paul

So how do we avoid this temptation? Perhaps we need to revisit Jesus’s lesson in the parable: remember, he’s rebuking the people who emphasized, but didn’t embody, holiness and purity. What the Pharisees longed for wasn’t illegitimate, but they failed to recognize their own fallenness. The way to renewal, though, wasn’t in public demonstrations of piety; it was in humble cries for mercy from a holy God.

To resist the Pharisee temptation is to be countercultural.

Paul understood this. A former Pharisee, he described himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). When he saw himself, he didn’t see someone who tithed a tenth of his income; he saw someone whose heart was bent toward sin like the mercy-begging tax collector. This didn’t keep Paul from courageous truth-telling, but it did engender a spirit of humility. Paul saw himself as a forgiven sinner talking to other sinners about the One who forgives sin.

And so should we. There is a vast difference between answering public heresy with public rebuke in a way that honors the dignity of those with whom we disagree, and moral preening that refuses to give the benefit of the doubt to a brother or sister. One refutes false teaching and edifies the body of Christ; the other declares our righteousness before an adoring chorus.

To resist the Pharisee temptation is to be countercultural. It’s to resist building a reputation or platform on the backs of other Christians. We can do this in small ways, by the controversies we decline to engage and by the words we use when we do engage. But most of all, we resist self-righteousness when we freely confess that our sins are just as wicked as the sins of those we’re most tempted to despise.

Daniel Darling is a Senior VP at National Religious Broadcasters. He was previously the VP of Communications at ERLC. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, USA Today, Washington Post, Fox News, and Homelife. He is the author of several books, including, The Characters of ChristmasThe Dignity Revolution,andA Way With WordsDaniel, his wife, and four children reside in Nashville, TN where he is an associate pastor at Green Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @dandarling and find his work at danieldarling.com.

NIGHT LIGHT FOR COUPLES

I’m Third from the Denver Post Out of the sun, packed in a diamond formation and flying as one that day, the Minute Men dove at nearly the speed of sound toward a tiny emerald patch on Ohio’s unwrinkled crazy quilt below. It was a little after nine on the morning of June 7, 1958, and the destination of the Air National Guard’s jet precision team was the famed Wright‐Patterson Air Force Base, just outside Dayton. On the ground, thousands of faces looked upward as Colonel Walt Williams, leader of the Denver‐based Sabrejet team, gauged a high‐speed pull‐out. For the Minute Men pilots—Colonel Williams, Captain Bob Cherry, Lieutenant Bob Odle, Captain John Ferrier, and Major Win Coomer—the maneuver was routine, for they had given their show hundreds of times before millions of people. Low across the fresh, green grass the jet stream streaked, far ahead of the noise of the planes’ own screaming engines. Judging his pull‐up, Colonel Williams pressed the microphone button on top of his throttle: “Smoke on—now!” The diamond of planes pulled straight up into the turquoise sky, a bush tail of white smoke pluming out behind. The crowd gasped as the four ships suddenly split apart, rolling to the four points of the compass and leaving a beautiful, smoky fleur‐de‐lis inscribed on the heavens. This was the Minute Men’s famed “flower burst” maneuver. For a minute the crowd relaxed, gazing at the tranquil beauty of the huge, white flower that had grown from the lush Ohio grasslands to fill the great bowl of sky. Out on the end of his stem of the flower, Colonel Williams turned his Sabre hard, cut off the smoke trail, and dropped the nose of his F86 to pick up speed for the low‐altitude crossover maneuver. Then, glancing back over his shoulder, he froze in terror. Far across the sky to the east, John Ferrier’s plane was rolling. He was in trouble. And his plane was headed right for the small town of Fairborn, on the edge of Patterson Field. In a moment, the lovely morning had turned to horror. Everyone saw; everyone understood. One of the planes was out of control. Steering his jet in the direction of the crippled plane to race after it, Williams radioed urgently, “Bail out, John! Get out of there!” Ferrier still had plenty of time and room to eject safely. Twice more Williams issued the command: “Bail out, Johnny! Bail out!” Each time, Williams was answered only by a blip of smoke. He understood immediately. John Ferrier couldn’t reach the mike button on the throttle because both hands were tugging on a control stick locked in full‐throw right. But the smoke button was on the stick, so he was answering the only way he could—squeezing it to tell Walt he thought he could keep his plane under enough control to avoid crashing into the houses of Fairborn. Suddenly, a terrible explosion shook the earth. Then came a haunting silence. Walt Williams continued to call through the radio, “Johnny? Are you there? Captain, answer me!” No response. Major Win Coomer, who had flown with Ferrier for years, both in the Air National Guard and with United Airlines, and who had served a combat tour with him in Korea, was the first Minute Man to land. He raced to the crash scene, hoping to find his friend alive. Instead, he found a neighborhood in shock from the awful thing that had happened. Captain John T. Ferrier’s Sabrejet had hit the ground midway between four houses, in a backyard garden. It was the only place where he could have crashed without killing people. The explosion had knocked a woman and several children to the ground, but no one had been hurt, with the exception of Johnny Ferrier. He had been killed instantly. A steady stream of people began coming to Coomer as he stood in his flying suit beside the smoking, gaping hole in the ground where his best friend had just died. “A bunch of us were standing together, watching the show,” an elderly man with tears in his eyes told Coomer. “When the pilot started to roll, he was headed straight for us. For a second, we looked right at each other. Then he pulled up right over us and put it in there.” In deep humility, the old man whispered, “This man died for us.” Looking ahead… A few days after this tragic accident, John Ferrier’s wife, Tulle, found a worn card in his billfold. On it were the words “I’m Third.” That simple phrase exemplified the life—and death—of this courageous man. For him, God came first, others second, and himself third. True to his philosophy, John Ferrier sacrificed his life for people he had never met. If you ever found yourself in a similar situation, would you do the same? In the coming week we’re going to ask how one develops the attitude of a servant. – James C. Dobson From Night Light For Couples, by Dr. James & Shirley Dobson
Copyright © 2000 by James Dobson, Inc. All rights reserved. “I’m Third,” retold by James Lund. This story originally appeared in the Denver Post in the late 1950s.

NIGHT LIGHTS FOR PARENTS

Living and Learning by Robin Jones Gunn We were caught in downtown traffic when the thin woman approached our car at a red light. “Please,” she said, tapping on the closed window. “Please, can you help me?” My husband rolled down the window and we all heard the wail of the baby in her arms. “I need milk for my baby. Can you give me some money?” My husband pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her as the light turned green. We drove away and I frowned. What kind of beggar wears that much makeup? How many drivers has she hit up today? It was our seven-year-old daughter who spoke first. “Do you think she’ll go buy milk now?” I gave a muffled “humph.” My husband said, “I don’t know.” “Then why did you give her the money?” our eleven-year-old son asked. My husband didn’t hesitate before answering. “Because God asked me to be a cheerful giver. I’m not responsible for what she does with the money. She’ll have to answer to God for that. I’m only responsible for my part, which in this case was to give cheerfully.” Humph. I still wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t like we had an abundance of twenty-dollar bills to hand out. We were on a very tight budget. Budgets were something our kids knew all about. We sat them down as soon as they started receiving an allowance and taught them how to budget their money. We also talked a lot about responsibility. And as for honesty, we called them into the living room and gave a grand lecture on always telling the truth. According to all the Christian parenting books, we were doing it right, teaching our children character based on biblical principles. But it was easy to call a family meeting. What I found more difficult was taking advantage of the daily opportunities to teach that seemed to pop up at the most inopportune times. Like the time I bought two pairs of jeans for our son and made it all the way home before discovering the department store had only charged me for one pair. It was the clerk’s mistake, and I really didn’t have time for another trip downtown. Still, I remembered that honesty lecture we’d given the kids, so after I picked up our daughter from school, I took the jeans and the receipt and tried to pay for the second pair. The clerk didn’t quite know what to do, so she called for her supervisor to intervene. I explained again as my daughter listened. The supervisor sent me to customer service and again I tried to pay. “Why are you doing this?” the clerk asked. I was beginning to wonder myself. Then my daughter reminded me. “God would have known,” Rachel said quietly. She tugged on the strap of my purse. “Tell her you’re just trying to be honest, Mom.” My frustration didn’t immediately evaporate, but I began to understand that I was teaching my daughter something that would stay with her much longer than any talk I gave. Our kids were watching our lives and learning from the choices we made. Our son is now a tall teenager. He doesn’t have a regular job, but money comes to him in various ways. His last birthday produced some serious income, and he was excited about buying a new paintball gun. The next week at church I noticed him slip a folded twenty-dollar bill into the offering plate. Quickly doing the math, I realized he’d given twice what a tithe would have been on his birthday money. He wouldn’t be able to buy that paintball gun now. Stunned and tearfully proud of the way he’d given in such a humble way, I turned to catch a glimpse of his face. There was a grin across that firm jaw of his, and at that moment he looked so much like his father. What really warmed this mother’s heart, though, was knowing that we had passed on more than a family resemblance. Looking ahead… This true story by Robin Jones Gunn sounded very familiar when I read it. It should have, because the same thing happened to me in the parking lot of a restaurant a few years ago. A woman with a baby blocked my path with her car and began crying hysterically. She said she absolutely had to have twenty dollars immediately and didn’t have time to explain. When I asked again why she needed the money so desperately, she blurted out, “Oh, please help me. I can’t go into the reason. I just have to have it.” I handed her twenty dollars and she drove off crying. Was I taken in by a scam? Probably. Then why did I cooperate? I didn’t have a child with me to impress or influence, so that wasn’t my motivation. I gave the money for the same reason Robin’s husband handed twenty dollars to the woman with a baby. I was taught by my parents to give to those in need. Generosity is a central feature of the Christian ethic. When Scripture tells us to “give to the one who asks you” (Matthew 5:42), it does not say “give only if the money will be used wisely” or “give only if you know you’ll get it back.” Oh, I know what you’re thinking right now—that it is stupid to allow yourself to be duped, and I agree. But until all the facts are known, I choose to do what appears to be right and let God deal with the other person. This principle of giving to others is only one component of the strong spiritual foundation we must pass on to our children. Scripture admonishes us to “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). There is an assumption in that proverb, however. We as parents can’t train a child in the way he should go unless we know which way he should go. To help with that task, we are providing material in the next week related to what I call a “checklist for spiritual training.” This little self-test will walk you through a carefully conceived, systematic approach to the faith instruction of your children. Many of these items require maturity that they lack, and we should not try to make adult Christians out of our immature youngsters. But we can gently teach them these concepts during the impressionable years of childhood. This may be the most important challenge you will face as parents. The six scriptural concepts that follow can serve as a guide as you nurture your children—especially during their first seven years. The concepts and supporting questions are “targets” toward which you can nudge your boys and girls. When consciously taught, they will give your children the foundation on which all future doctrine and faith will rest. Bathe the entire effort in prayer and He will guide your paths. – James C Dobson From Night Light For Parents, by Dr. James & Shirley Dobson
Copyright © 2000 by James Dobson, Inc. All rights reserved. “Living and Learning” by Robin Jones Gunn. © 1998. Robin is the award-winning, bestselling author of over fifty books including the Christy Miller series for teens and the Glenbrooke series. Visit her Web site at http://www.robingunn.com. Used by permission of the author. Spiritual training checklist from Emotions: Can You Trust Them? by Dr. James C. Dobson (Ventura, Calif.: Gospel Light Publications, 1980). Used by permission.