Afflicting the Comfortable

John Wesley described his task as a preacher as “To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

We are certainly familiar with the Gospel of comfort for the afflicted—the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the sick, lives transformed by the message of the Good News of God’s love. Saint Peter, leader of the early church, was deeply conscious of how he had utterly failed and denied his master, in spite of all his boasting, yet Jesus had still trusted him to ‘feed his sheep’, and he is only one of many failures to whom God has given a second chance to become leaders in his Kingdom.

But ‘afflict the comfortable’—what is the idea of this? How do we square this with the idea of a loving God?

There is no doubt as to who the ‘comfortable’ were in Jesus’s day—they were the religious leaders, the Pharisees. We are told they were ‘lovers of money’, ‘whited sepulchres’—looking good on the outside, but on the inside, ‘full of dead men’s bones’. They were hypocrites, ‘for a pretence making long prayers’. They loved ‘salutations in the marketplaces’ and ostentatious religious dress. They were ‘of their father, the devil’, and from very early on in Jesus’s ministry, sought to have his followers excommunicated, and Jesus himself killed. They were people who sought the best of both worlds—to be God’s favourites, while at the same time enjoying wealth, power and glory in the world in which they lived. What a contrast with the Son of Man, who “made himself of no reputation” and “had nowhere to lay his head.”

The problem of the Pharisee is that his religion is one of a bargain with God. He ‘fasts twice a week’ and ‘gives tithes of all he possesses.’ For all this trouble and sacrifice, he expects God to do him favours in return—health, wealth and reputation. He has no place for those who have failed—the tax collectors and other sinners. His self-satisfaction knows no bounds.

Jesus deals with such people by setting the standards of his Kingdom so high that even the Pharisee will fall short. “Except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” A lustful glance in the wrong direction means that one should pluck out one’s eye. A harsh word to one’s brother makes one liable to judgment. To neglect the poor at your gate leads to thy fires of Hell. The young ruler who claimed to have kept the Ten Commandments “from his youth up” is told to “sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” He goes away sorrowing—Jesus’s price is too high.

But this is Jesus’s precise point. The Pharisee, as much as the publican, is one who “has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He, too, is in need of God’s forgiveness. In contrast to the woman of the streets, who bathed his feet with her tears, he is forgiven little, and loves little. It is the fact that his investment in ‘being good’ gives no return in Jesus’s estimation that makes him hate Jesus to the point of death.

St. Paul on the road to the Damascus, was a Pharisee who ‘saw the light.’ More than once in his epistles, Paul lists the qualifications he had to be a super righteous Pharisee, and pointed out that to him this was so much garbage, for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as the Christ. But Pharisees of this kind are indeed rare.

Jesus warned his disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees”—this ‘holier than thou’ attitude that can creep into a church, so that instead of being a fellowship of redeemed sinners, it is a selective club that keeps out the very outcasts that the Son of God came to save. It strikes me that, as we face the issues of morality that are so troubling to the church at this time, we have to make sure that, while removing the speck in our brother’s eye, we don’t miss the log that is in our own!

– Anglican Messenger, November 2004