“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” is the title of one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry. In the poem, Berry’s reveals how the life of the protagonist, the Mad Farmer, stands in contrast to the society around him. In a beautiful way, the Mad Farmer reveals the contrariness that the People of God are to exhibit to the world around them. The world has its interpretations of how things should operate and as “Kingdom folk” we often look contrary to those interpretations. When we turn to the gospel of John we find a striking picture of two interpretations in conflict.
Imagine this: It was early in the morning and Jesus had been teaching in the temple courts. Suddenly, the Pharisees bring before him a woman caught in the act of adultery. With stones in hand, the Pharisees 'remind' Jesus of what their law says about such things: "Are you going to follow our law? Will you have this woman killed?" The Pharisees were really asking these questions in order to trap Jesus. In an unexpected turn of events, Jesus kneels to the ground. He quietly confronts the Pharisees who, one by one, walk away. The woman and Jesus are left standing there.
The Gospels make it clear that Jesus and the Pharisees often disagreed. In fact, their tension ran deep enough that the Pharisees eventually plotted to arrest and kill Jesus. Just what exactly was the source of this tension? The gospels show us that the major tension between the Pharisees and Jesus centered on the practice of Torah. The Torah is Israel's sacred scriptures which contains commands concerning every aspect of a Jewish person's life. According to the Pharisees, to obey Torah was to ultimately receive YHWH's blessing signaled by the arrival of the coming Messiah and his Kingdom. In fact, the Jewish people had developed an entire system in order to keep Torah properly. This system of laws was called halakhah or the Jewish Law.
Because of Torah and the laws concerning it, an Israelite knew what they could eat, what they could wear, who they could associate with, how to worship, and even when they should wash their hands. It functioned as a way of ordering and regulating the world and allowed one to know "what and who belong when and where." To say it another way, Torah was a way of living out the Story of YHWH. Therefore, the primary focus of a Pharisee was to practice these laws to perfection—and that is the issue. The Pharisees couldn't stand how Jesus practiced Torah. Why? Because in their eyes, Jesus was not practicing Torah.
The gospel of Luke gives a perfect example. Jesus, upon being invited for dinner, walks into a room of Pharisees. One can imagine a twinkle in Jesus' eyes and maybe, just maybe, a smirk. Rather than pausing for the ceremonial hand washing that the law required before a meal, Jesus goes and finds a comfy spot to sit and eat. The Pharisees are astounded! Jesus just blatantly ignored Torah by eating with 'defiled hands!' Hand washing, however, was not the only tension that the Pharisees had with Jesus. In fact, there are five primary tensions that the gospels use as examples:
1. Hand Washing
2. Food Laws
The five tensions revolved around the Pharisees concern for purity. When a Jew did not adhere to Torah properly they were unclean. Clean and unclean were qualifiers for where one stood in relation to God and his people. This is why the Pharisees couldn't make sense of Jesus' miracles. Surely someone who ignored Torah could not have God's blessing! They are unclean! The Pharisees’ idea of clean and unclean forced them to conclude that Jesus’ power came from the devil. At one point, even Jesus’ own family claimed he must be mad! The supposed mad messiah was seen as a direct hindrance to the redemption of Israel by throwing the Pharisees’ system of purity off balance. No wonder they sought to kill him!
Strangely enough, Jesus actually claimed he was not seeking to ignore or even abolish Torah, but to truly fulfill it. This is where the conundrum lies. The issue was not Jesus' living of Torah, but the Pharisees' interpretation of Torah. As Scot McKnight says, "the Pharisees taught love of the Torah, and were good at it, but Jesus taught a Torah of love, and he was good at it." The Pharisees' interpretation of Torah kept the ‘who’ and ‘what’ where they wanted them kept. They did not have to deal with mercy or justice, because the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Torah created a distance from others. However, Jesus redefined those notions. Jesus redefined clean and unclean. Jesus revealed the nature of Torah.
Let’s go back to the Gospel of John. The woman and Jesus were left standing there after the Pharisees dropped their stones and walked away. "Now, where did they go," he laughs, "Is there anyone here left accusing you?" The woman's response is quite radical. Jesus had not made his official judgment about her case and yet she claims that no one, including Jesus, has condemned her. Why? Because Jesus is living a Torah of Love.
Jesus was living out the Story of YHWH—a story filled with lament and tragedy, with joy and forgiveness, with hope and expectation, with restoration and resurrection—a story centered on love. Love ultimately encompasses all those elements. Love ultimately encompasses the whole Torah. From this vantage point of love, Jesus’ tension with the Pharisees begins to make sense. This is why Jesus could claim that the Pharisees were truly the ones shutting the doors of the Kingdom despite their strict adherence to the Torah. This is why Jesus could call the Pharisees clean on the outside, while in reality they were unclean on the inside. The Pharisees were unclean because they lacked love.
We enter into the story much later than the Pharisees, but the tension still remains—we too have our own interpretations. We have interpretations that keep the ‘who’ and ‘what’ where we want them to be kept—often at a distance. We have our interpretations of what is clean and unclean without ever having to deal with things like justice, mercy, or love. Yet, as we experience more of Jesus and the story of YHWH, our tightly held interpretations begin to drop their stones and walk away one by one. And after some time has passed, we are ultimately left sitting at the feet of Jesus--our beautiful and contrary mad Messiah.