Hanging Out in the Land of the Sadducees

Knights in submission to God's will

Knights in submission to God’s will

Knight showing submission

Knight showing submission

Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

Obedience – The First Knightly Virtue

I had lunch recently with a young friend of mine, and I asked him to share with me his thoughts on the subject of obedience – what he thinks of when he hears that word, etc. He shared some ideas, and then said, “You know, a lot of people might interpret your articles as being legalistic.”

“Really,” I said with a wry smile. “But you’ve never actually read any of my articles, so how would you know?” He said that he had. “How many?” I asked. He finally confessed that he had only read a couple.

Then he clarified his statement: “My generation is so grace-oriented that anything other than grace sounds legalistic.” I see. So, if I try to balance grace with, say, discipline, that’s legalistic. I would agree with him that his generation is grace-crazy; but I would call it something else – LICENTIOUSNESS.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me explain the difference between grace and licentiousness… and, for that matter, legalism and obedience. Back in Jesus’ day, there were two major religious and political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the conservatives, the Sadducees were the liberals. Today, when someone wants to insult a Christian, they call him either a legalist or a Pharisee, but never a Sadducee. I’ve been called a Pharisee many, many times. But all it means, literally, is that I’m religiously conservative. Now, you can read more into it if you like – e.g., that I’m hypocritical – but I don’t think that’s what people mean when they call someone a “Pharisee.” I think they mean that the person is narrow-minded and judgmental – basically, the religious counterpart of the POLITICAL labels that were heaped on George W. Bush when he was in office. I’m a religious version of George W. Bush, in my opponents’ minds. Well, all I can say to that is, “Nuts!”

Why don’t people ever insult LIBERAL Christians? I’ll tell you why. Most of you are familiar with the book and movie Ben-Hur, right? But did you know that the fictional character, Judah Ben-Hur, was a Sadducee? Sadducees were “in bed with” the Romans, politically. They just wanted to get along with whomever was in power so they could do well in business, have a nice house and send their kids to good schools. (I know it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s what it comes down to.) Does that sound like most Americans today? If the Pharisees were narrow-minded and judgmental, the Sadducees were licentious.

See, when I say negative things about the Pharisees, no one flinches. But when I say something negative about the Sadducees, some people are going, “Well, wait a minute. Are you saying that ALL Sadducees were licentious? Ben-Hur wasn’t.” My point exactly. Both those statements are examples of stereotyping. Yet, we accept stereotyping about the Pharisees; we don’t about the Sadducees. (I could go down the list of groups of people in America today that we do the same thing with. We pick and choose whom we will love, even though Jesus said to love everyone. It’s called being “politically correct.”)

Did you know that Jesus was just as critical of the Sadducees as He was of the Pharisees? It didn’t matter that one group was conservative and the other liberal. Jesus didn’t give a hoot about that. What put the bur under His saddle was that both groups taught false doctrines, both were hypocritical and both lacked compassion. They cared very little about people; they LOVED their power and position. (Sounds like a town on the Potomac River, doesn’t it?)

Yet, only the Pharisees have gotten a bad rap. Does that tell you something about how we think today? If we weren’t such a licentious society, if we were more like our Pilgrim fathers and our Puritan ancestors, it would be the SADDUCEES with the bad rap. BOTH GROUPS WERE WRONG; yet, we accept the Sadducees because we accept licentiousness. We don’t accept the Pharisees because we don’t accept narrow-mindedness. We’re like spoiled little brats wanting to do what WE like, and we dont’ want ANYONE saying ANYTHING against it. Would you care to admit which of those two groups – Pharisees or Sadducees – you believe your parents fit into most?

Let me clear something up: we don’t know the names of ANY Sadducees in the Bible; we DO know the names of some Pharisees, because many of them became Christians – including Saul, who became the Apostle Paul. I wouldn’t be too quick to judge the Pharisees and let the Sadducees off the hook. Jesus’ words against the Sadducees were JUST AS SCATHING as they were against the Pharisees. And I wonder, if Jesus were to appear on the scene today, if it would be the conservative Christians being taken to task, or if He would have some very choice things to say to the liberal ones as well. We ASSUME it would be the conservatives, because we hate the Pharisees and we’ve seen enough stereotyping of Christians by Hollywood – presenting them as narrow-minded, judgmental people – to last a lifetime. As a matter of fact, there’s a remake of FOOTLOOSE coming out soon that does just that. BUT YOU’VE NEVER, EVER SEEN A HOLLYWOOD FILM STEREOTYPING A LICENTIOUS CHRISTIAN, HAVE YOU? And you never will, because being licentious is acceptable in our society; being narrow-minded and judgmental is not.

Jesus rejected both the Pharisees AND the Sadducees, and if He appeared on the scene today, He would take both conservatives and liberals to task. Grace is not about licentiousness, though that is how it has played out in our society; and obedience is not about being narrow-minded and judgmental, though that is how IT has played out. (I guess you were wondering when I would get back to OBEDIENCE, the topic of this essay.) Obedience is “doing what you’ve been asked to do.” According to the dictionary, it is “complying with or submissive to authority,” and the example given is “an obedient son.”

Which, of course, reminds us of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Two sons: one, a Pharisee, for all practical purposes – that’s the older son; the other, a Sadducee – the younger son. The younger son takes his inheritance, leaves his father’s house and, for awhile, lives the life of a libertine – as lascivious and licentious as you please. After his money runs out, he kicks around for awhile, and then returns home to the loving arms of his forgiving father. The older son is outraged. He wants his younger brother to be punished. Now, how many of us, if our sibling went out and spent half our parents’ savings, would not respond the same way? Yet, we reject the older son because he is being, in our minds, narrow-minded and judgmental. I think he is just responding naturally, the way any sibling would that had just seen his parents’ future and his own inheritance go down the drain. Only the father is transcendent in this story. That’s because the father represents God. The father overlooks the flaws in both sons, so that he can love both. That’s how God responds to us. That’s grace.

The older son was obedient for the wrong reasons; the younger son was disobedient for the “right” reasons. The same could be said of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Both brothers, and both groups, were wrong. God wants us to be obedient for the right reasons: out of love for Him and love for others. That takes grace.

Obedience is a decision of the will – a decision to submit our will to God’s. As Jesus said, “Not my will, but Yours, be done.” It has nothing to do with whether we are conservative or liberal, narrow-minded or licentious, compliant or rebellious. It has everything to do with a loving Savior that has taken our narrow-mindedness and our licentiousness, and all our other sins and flaws, and nailed them to His cross; and then says, “Now what are you going to do?” Now what are we going to do, now that He has taken our security blankets, our idols, away? The answer is, obey.

And if my pointing this out makes me a legalist, then all I can say is, “Nuts!” 🙂

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, April 25, 2010

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Text © 2010 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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