7 – Division: Jesus’ Problem with the Pharisees

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Division is something we humans have always tended to believe in. There is always the bad person, bad group or bad nation. This scapegoating way of handling our problems goes way back in our history, and is still our knee jerk response. Not to say there aren’t any bad guys, but is dividing and conquering them the answer? What about drawing them close into a shared community where we can sort out our problems through helping each other? For the most part, people on “the other side” want this. They don’t want the destruction. And people don’t fit into our neat categories. It’s like the Good Samaritan, who was the enemy, but who actually turned out to be the good guy.

But Satan is the master of “divide and conquer.” This is how he divides us as people and then conquers us, and we fall for it time after time, war after war. And he largely does this through our desires, whether as individuals or as nations. This is how he pretty well handles the human race, moving us from one conflict to another, so we don’t wise up and become strong in defeating his death strategies together. He is our enemy, not the other group. Through division, which works in our hearts, Satan always wins. Jesus gave us a strategy to overcome Satan. And here it is.

Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees of his time was that they did kingdom Satan’s way. He said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself will fall.” (Luke 11:17. The commentary below is from Jesus’ kingdom teachings in Luke 11 and following chapters.) Jesus was commenting on the lack of care people and groups had for each other. Their whole community was divided in hatred, abuse and violence. This was Satan’s plan to bring destruction into the lives of the people of the First Century. And it came to a terrible conclusion in AD 70, with massive scale death and slavery. Jesus’ statement wasn’t just about casting a demon out of a person, but about overcoming Satan in his destructive plans for our nations.

This is how it worked. The Pharisees promoted a type of faith whereby the adherents could shun their neighbours who were less holy than they. This enabled the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the people, who were supposed to be bringing healing to the community, to instead get on with their own lives. Many of them became extremely wealthy, in the midst of suffering in the generality of the people. They were so wealthy that many had to keep their gold hidden between the bricks in the temple. So the community became hopelessly divided into camps, not for genuine theological or purity reasons, as they pretended, but to give them an excuse for not helping others.

This is one of the centre pieces to Jesus’ teaching and to his different life example. These were the false shepherds, who failed to care for the sheep. They didn’t gather the sheep. So this is what Jesus meant by his statement, “He who fails to gather with me, scatters.” He was not talking about us gathering people to join our distinctive church or group. He was speaking about our service to others. The Pharisees scattered. They didn’t gather the wounded sheep, the sinner, the sick person, the one lost on the hills. They didn’t care about these at all. And they accused Jesus who went to these people’s homes to forgive and to restore them.

If the leadership of our communities don’t gather, but forsake those in need, then the result of such a community will be a fall. It will happen to that community exactly as it happened to Jerusalem. This was Jesus’ critique. He refers to the parable of Isaiah 5, speaking of Israel as a nurtured vineyard, which became full of briars. Demons would reenter Jerusalem and destroy it in that generation. And Jesus is telling them why. They built bigger barns for their accumulating wealth. They tithed their herbs, but completely neglected mercy towards the population. And they kept the propaganda going about people, like Jesus, who cared for “enemies”. They had to maintain their divisions, to legitimise their not serving others, to keep their wealth for themselves. So Satan whispers to the marginalised that no one cares for them and they will have to fight for 15 their rights. Satan becomes the conductor of selfish division and its destructive consequences in our nations.

This shows the task of churches. We aren’t here to erect walls between us and those who are wrong. There is truth and there is right and wrong. But those who know the truth are called to show it by service. God has put us in the community to be healing balm, to point to the Prince of Peace and his truth by our selfless lives, genuinely caring for others and for our enemies. This is what God did for us when we were his enemies. This is what defeats Satan and his plan in our communities.

Today we may say, “Jesus said he had come to bring division.” Yes, but not by us shunning our enemies, but by those who insist on maintaining their selfinterest. They will scapegoat those who witness against them. This happened to Jesus. Our call is to build reconciliation through selfgiving lives. Jesus’ witness was concerning the normal human behaviour of sacrificing others, even the innocent, for our own interest; behaviour that had its perfect example in the death of Christ.

Jesus had many confrontations with the Pharisees over the law, or what we call legalism. We have often thought that the issue they argued over was whether we are justified by keeping the law, or by faith in Christ. So we say that because we believe in Christ, and are not legalistic, then Jesus’ dispute is not directed towards us. This is not a clear way of seeing what Jesus was saying. This law verses faith way of seeing the disputes isn’t the heart of the issue.

Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were using the law as an excuse not to serve others. They couldn’t attend to the sick on the Sabbath Day. They couldn’t serve the man on the road to Jericho, in case they became ceremonially polluted. They couldn’t visit the sick in their homes because of sinners. The issue wasn’t legalism, it was selfishness. They preferred divided lives, away from the suffering in the world, and the law was a perfect justification.

In the end, was Satan divided against himself? Yes, he was. Did this cause his kingdom to fall? Yes, it did. The type of kingdom management he encouraged was divide and conquer. This enabled one strong man after another to take the goods of the nation. Anyone who was a threat to this would be scapegoated. Till today, this is how our nations are governed, both domestically and also how we behave internationally. But when Satan turned his usual tactics towards Jesus, they backfired in his face. His technique was publically exposed, and Jesus took away his goods: people previously captive to Satan’s methods.

A New kingdom has been launched. One which is not built on the process of division, selfinterest, scapegoating of innocent “enemies”, and brutal violence. This new kingdom gathers. It seeks to extend mercy to the population, and builds kingdom through care. This is Jesus’ announcement to the Pharisees and to Satan, about the fall of their kingdom throughout the nations. This is what the church is living out today in the world. We are its witnesses.