Tassel Tossing Tessie & The Pharisees
Pharisees didn’t disappear with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. They remain an ongoing presence in the life of the Church.
Self righteousness, seeing ourselves as morally superior to others, refusing to consort with those who are obviously sinful, condescension and contempt for the lost, wayward and down and out, instead of concern and love....all of these sorts of things which prompted Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep are still very much with us.
They prompted me, a week or so ago, to write not a parable, but two letters to the local paper.
Some wowser had raised my ire in a letter to that paper, by suggesting that true Christians don’t sin, and that the Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, in visiting a strip joint and in getting drunk, proved himself no Christian.
This pharisaical notion that Christians are sinless, wowsers, and morally superior to non-Christians troubles me, not least because it is so obviously untrue.
Some of the most loving, warm-hearted and devout folk I have ever met, have been burdened by a weakness for booze or sex or both, which they have never, ever, been able entirely to throw off. Whereas some of the most hard-hearted and hypocritical brutes have been to all intents and purposes exemplary churchgoers and Christians.
So in my first letter to the Shepparton News I recalled, with some fondness, a visit my brother and I had made as young men, both of us active and involved Christians at the time, to a night club in Salisbury, Rhodesia, in order to see the amazing “Tassel Tossing Tessie”. Her main claim to fame was her ability to swing tassels from prominent portions of her amazing anatomy in contrary motion.
In my letter, I ventured to suggest that neither at the time, nor now, did I see anything dangerously evil in my visit, or feel any compulsion to repent of it. Whereas, on the other hand, overweening pride, arrogance, lack of charity, economy with the truth and such like, are some of the real evils that have troubled me down through the years and still do, though even these can be repented of and forgiven, over and over again.
This first letter brought a flutter of response from a selection of wowserish and pharisaic Christians. So I wrote a second and final letter, as follows.
St Augustine’s Church, Shepparton, of which I am the most fortunate and blessed Rector, like every church of which I have been a part, is most emphatically not full of righteous, sinless, pure-as-driven-snow wowsers and prigs.
On the contrary its members are, for the most part, warm-hearted, forgiven and forgiving, life enjoying, party-loving sinners, scally-wags and rascals, with the suspicion of a saint just here and there, though not in the pulpit.
Jesus found the company of publicans and sinners preferable to that of self righteous pharisees. So do I, and so do nearly all of the Christians whose company I have enjoyed and benefited from down through the years. We aspire to goodness but do not claim to attain to it.
Those self-satisfied enough to claim sinlessness for themselves and to demand it of others, are pharisees. The pharisee’s sins of censorious pride, stoniness of heart and lack of love far outweigh mere sins of the flesh. Jesus’ parable of the "Pharisee and the Publican" says it all.
People sometimes walk into St Augustine’s and say "it’s a wonder it doesn’t fall down with the likes of me walking in." My response is always, "if it can withstand my daily entrance it can certainly withstand yours. The place is built for sinners not saints."
So all Shepparton’s sinners are welcome in St Augustine’s. Though those who consider themselves free from sin, or as having left sin behind, wouldn’t want to mix in such dangerous company.
Matthew Arnold in 1867, wrote what is arguably the most significant of all Victorian poems. Called “Dover Beach” it laments, unforgettably, the melancholy decline of the Christian faith. A far less well known poem by Arnold, however bears direct reference to the Parable of the Lost Sheep. It is one that also gives me great delight.
The poem begins with a reference to Tertullian, an influential, 2nd century Church theologian who eventually fell into the Montanist heresy and maintained harshly and pharisaically, that a Christian who falls morally from grace cannot be redeemed, is damned forever.
Arnold then, however goes on to refer to a painting he had seen in the catacombs drawn by one of the viciously persecuted early Christians whose Church, as Arnold puts it, unlike Tertullian, ...felt the tide (of love) stream ..... from her Lord’s yet recent grave.”
Apparently this painting is of the Good Shepherd returning from his search for a lost sheep. But with over his shoulders not a lamb, but a kid. That is, not a young sheep, but a young goat.
Isn’t that lovely? No separating of sheep from goats. The traditional, harsh distinction between them done away with. A different tradition, a different Gospel strand focussed upon. One surely truer to the heart of unpharisaical Jesus the consorter with publicans and sinners, the composer of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and of the aphorism: “Judge not......”
Sheep or goat, saint or sinner, if we stray, we are searched for by the good Shepherd. Merit plays no part in being found and shouldered back to grace. Indeed, it is all grace.
The bearded old billy goat writing this little article didn’t find Jesus for himself, I was found, and to my inestimable good fortune, way back at my birth, for I was born into love, faith, Church, goodness and joy.
O Lord, thou has searched me out, and known me: Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising.Thou understandest my thoughts long before. Thou art about my path, and about my bed and spiest out all my ways.... Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit? or whither shall I go then from thy presence? If I climb up into heaven, thou art there; if I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.....