Pharisaical Observation

Jeff Spectordoctrine, Jews, Mormons, obedience, ordinances, orthodox, religion, righteousness, salvation, spiritual progression, theology, time management, Word of Wisdom 30 Comments

I wrote a post some time ago on whether they Pharisees were given a bad rap in the New Testament. It can be found here. One of the other bad raps against the Pharisees is that they were more concerned about the performance of the Law than the spiritual meaning of the Law. The story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:10- 14) is meant to illustrate the point. Since modern Judaism is the outgrowth of Pharisaical Judaism, the same charge is made of the most observant Jews of our time.  More on that a bit later.

In the LDS Church, we are asked to do a lot of things. Performances, if you will.  Daily prayer, multiple times a day, over meals, with spouse, family, personal and in our heart at all times; Daily scripture study, with family, spouse and personal; weekly Family Home Evening;  Monthly Home/ Visiting Teaching; Regular Temple Attendance (at least once a month) and Family History Work; Pay tithes and offerings (10% of increase plus Fast Offerings and other contributions); attend our meetings, Sunday, weekday and other; Accept and perform callings given to us by the Bishop or Stake President; Acquire, keep, use and rotate a 1 year supply of food, 3 day emergency kit, supply of funds for emergencies; Strictly observe the Word of Wisdom: perform acts of services for others, meals for the sick, moving families in and out of the ward, yard work, repair work, community service, etc.;  Attend a yearly Tithing Settlement with the Bishop and a bi-yearly Temple Recommend Interview. And more.

These performances are meant to assist us in becoming more like our Savior and Heavenly Father. There is a spiritual meaning and intention behind each of these acts that should be carefully considered as we are doing them. These acts are not an end to themselves, but the means to an end. In most cases, they are recommended, strongly recommended and with a recommended frequency, but the regularity of performance is really a personal choice.

I get concerned both for myself and others that we may fall into the trap the Pharisees found themselves in. That the performances themselves begin to overshadow their meaning and the true intent. I fear that going through the motions becomes more important than real intent of the act itself.

For example, the purpose of Home Teaching is to “watch over the members of the Church, home teachers visit their assigned families at least once each month to teach and strengthen them. Home teachers establish a relationship of trust with these families so that the families can call upon them in times of need.” (LDS Church Website). But, if that relationship of trust is never formed because the Home Teachers do not take the time to really get to know the family and each of its members, does it really matter than they show up once a month? I realize it is a reported statistic, but what it purpose of the report? To prove we have gone through the motions?

Another example. Regular Temple Attendance. Most members of the Church (80%) are blessed to have a temple within 200 miles of their homes.  This means that regular attendance is more possible than ever before. The days of saving up for a lifetime to attend once and receive Temple ordnances for you and your family are rapidly coming to an end. Though, it is probably still true for some.  We only need to attend once for ourselves. The other times we go have a benefit to us and a service performed for others. We get to experience the serenity of the Temple environs, learn more of the meaning of the ordinances and provide a service for those who have passed from this life without receiving temple ordinances. But, if in striving to attend once a month as directed, we rush, do not fully pay attention and just go through the motions, are we really doing as we are asked to do? Maybe once a month isn’t possible or the right frequency for us?

Here are two stories from my Jewish experience.

Years ago, one of my great uncles was traveling in Africa (Ethiopia, I believe) and, as a very observant Jew, wanted to attend synagogue for the Sabbath. After the service, a man came up to him and, observing that my uncle had a pen in his shirt pocket, spat on him and accused him of defiling the Sabbath by carrying a pen in his pocket. Carrying a pen would be forbidden because one might be tempted to write with it on the Sabbath and that is considered work.

My family and I attended a large family reunion at a famous Jewish resort in the “borscht belt” of the Catskill Mountains of New York. This resort had seen its better days but was world famous in its heyday. I must admit there were more different types of Jews there than I had ever seen, from the most observant Hasidim with their black suits and peyos (side curls) to others in shorts and t-shirts. I imagine my family was the only Mormons there.

On Friday night, at the start of the Sabbath, one of the two elevators was set to automatic so that one need not push any buttons for it to operate. In other words, the doors open, you get in, the doors close and the elevator goes to the next floor. The doors open, people get in and out, the doors close and proceeds to the next floor. It allowed the people to ride the elevator without doing any work (pushing the buttons).

Well my uncle got into the non-automatic elevator with two young ladies. They asked him to push the button for floor 2 because they got into the wrong elevator. They told him they could not push the buttons themselves. He said to them that the scriptures say that they should not work nor should they make anyone else work (See Exodus 20:10).  The two young ladies looked at him with a rather quizzical look. They did not understand what he was saying.  He then pushed the button for their floor.

So, I worry that we, as a Church might be getting a little too carried away with the performances (the checklist as we have discussed recently) we are asked to do without the thought of the spiritual significance of what we do.

In some cases, if a 1 year supply is good, a 3 year supply is better. If the Word of Wisdom means abstaining from coffee and black tea, then abstaining from any caffeine, “hot” drink or chocolate is better. If going to the Temple once a month is good, going every week is better.

The regularity of these things is really a personal choice and should be aligned with all the other things we are doing in our life and should be based on our own spiritual growth and development. After all, the objective is to become like Jesus and Our Heavenly Father,  become the best person we can, serve others and return to live with them in the eternities, not rack up a bunch of impressive statistics.

Comments 30

  1. Jeff, thanks.

    I heard a visiting authority suggest in a stake leadership meeting that the Lord does not need statistics because He can see our hearts. But for us, statistics might be a reminder of what’s going on inside.

  2. Romans 13:8 — “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”

    Galatians 5:14 — “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

    Colossians 2:16-22 — “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ…Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?”

    Galatians 5:1 — “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage [to the Law, symbolized by circumcision; see the context of the rest of the chapter].”

    Rituals and ritualistic observances (i.e., things that have no direct bearing on loving one’s neighbor) may have their place in Christian religion, as assisting with spiritual formation and discipline, but the Apostle Paul was very clear in warning against the danger of elevating those observances to an unwarranted place — which, he suggested, is not just harmless chicken (matzo ball?) soup, but rather something that could actually destroy true faith in Christ.

    A Word of Wisdom fetishist may be dangerously close to idolatry.

  3. Jeff, this is a wonderful post. It’s easy for us to see the shortcomings of the Pharisees without realizing that we often slip into the same pattern. This is especially true in LDS missionary work, where there is a great emphasis on keeping the numbers up. When I talked to my missionary daughter on Mother’s Day, she told me of an ongoing argument the Sisters and the Elders were having in her mission. The Elders are supposed to turn single female investigators over to the Sister missionaries to teach, but they haven’t been doing so. The Mission President advised the Sisters that if they thought their numbers were being affected by this, they should likewise stop turning over their single male investigators to the Elders, thus “looking out for their own best interests.” Hmmm. My daughter asked, “Aren’t we supposed to be looking out for OUR INVESTIGATORS’ best interests, instead of being concerned about the numbers?” HMMMM.

    Anyway, this post is very motivational. I think it would be great to get carried away with observances because we are so imbued with the spirit of what we are doing that we want to do more. But sometimes doing less might even help us to reach the goal more effectively. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I have to admit I’ve taken to referring to the Scribes rather than the Pharisees in situations where the latter is the more common useage to avoid the implication that comes because of their inheritors of tradition.

  5. Great post Jeff!

    These performances are meant to assist us in becoming more like our Savior and Heavenly Father. There is a spiritual meaning and intention behind each of these acts that should be carefully considered as we are doing them. These acts are not an end to themselves, but the means to an end.

    This is really the heart of the Gospel, and whatever gets in the way should be discarded, especially cultural misunderstandings!

  6. I think this is a natural progression in any organization – to “out-better” the people who were before. It is VERY hard for an organization to change the other way.

    A fairly straightforward example is the Word of Wisdom:
    – As revealed to JS, it was essentially a suggestion. Liquor (strong drinks) were prohibited. Beer (mild barley) and wine were allowed and used at all levels of the Church, including by the prophet and apostles.
    – Time passed. Eventually, beer and wine were discouraged and “strong drinks” were reinterpreted to mean most alcohol. Wine was still used for sacrament as revealed to JS, in the BofM, and by Christ in the Bible.
    – Wine was stopped in regular congregations, but continued in the temple
    – Around prohibition, the apostles stopped using wine for sacrament in the temple.
    – The WofW was elevated from a “suggestion” to a “commandment”
    – “Strong drinks” eventually meant ANY alcohol, with the “not a drop” talks given in conference
    – “Strong drinks” was expanded even further by some members to even mean things like vanilla extract, etc. as they contain alcohol

    – Similarly, “hot drinks” expanded to somehow include “Coke” for some people, and perhaps even chocolate for others

    In all of these stages, the rules get stricter and stricter. If someone along the way comes up with a MORE strict interpretation of something, it gets repeated by another GA who wants to support their colleagues. After a while, that becomes the new standard.

    It is extremely seldom that anyone ever hears of something going the other way. Imagine what would happen if someone actually did that. What if someone actually said that perhaps we should follow the WofW as given to and as lived by Joseph Smith. Still avoid strong drinks. But let’s use wine in the sacrament as instituted by Christ. Imagine what would happen to that person. Or imagine if someone actually taught moderation in all things. We still denounce drunkenness, but go ahead and have the same “mild barley drink / beer” that Joseph Smith enjoyed. Or still avoid strong drinks, but as new information has come out, perhaps having a glass of red wine with dinner is actually healthy for you, and since the Word of Wisdom is about health, we should incorporate all that we have learned since JS time.

    If these examples in the last paragraph seem far-fetched, it proves my point. Things can generally only get MORE strict and Pharisaical over time. If they go the other way, it is seen as apostasy. I’m sure Moses didn’t care about a ball-point pen. Yet the centuries of additions to the Law have lead to this. The same thing is happening in our Church.

  7. Did anyone else on this site attend BYU? By the time I graduated I was very glad to be freed from the Law of Moses (“Honor Code,” placed in quotes for a purpose) and the Sanhedrin (Honor Code Office). I served a full-time mission, I was living worthily to enter the temple, but if I forgot to shave…

  8. Mike S.

    I am wondering what your obsession with the Word of Wisdom comes from? As a convert, who drank alcohol and coffee and tea before I joined the Church, I nevertheless found them easy to give up. I didn’t then and still do not care what Joseph drank, or Brigham or any other latter-day saint. I knew about the WoW going in, and never looked back.

    The WoW itself is not, in my view an example of Pharisaical observance other than the extreme examples I gave.

    what is with you?

  9. Elder Uchtdorf wanted to post the following in response to your article:

    The Savior Himself provided the answer with this profound declaration: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” This is the essence of what it means to be a true disciple: those who receive Christ Jesus walk with Him.

    But this may present a problem for some because there are so many “shoulds” and “should nots” that merely keeping track of them can be a challenge. Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas.”

    This was one of the Savior’s criticisms of the religious “experts” of His day, whom He chastised for attending to the hundreds of minor details of the law while neglecting the weightier matters.
    -Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Love of God,” Ensign, Nov 2009, 21–24

  10. “In all of these stages, the rules get stricter and stricter. If someone along the way comes up with a MORE strict interpretation of something, it gets repeated by another GA who wants to support their colleagues. After a while, that becomes the new standard.”

    This is an interesting tendency of hierarchical, ascetic religious traditions. One proven avenue to power is to out-ascetic the next guy — to be “more royalist than the King.”

  11. #12…until what, it can’t be sustained,and then there is a revolt or departure from it?

    Why is it so hard for the church to replace some rules with more important rules, instead of just piling on?

    Why not all agree that coffee and tea is no big deal, and let’s focus on serving the poor and hungry with our excess material things.

    Do some trade thing…add one rule if you remove one out-dated rule.

  12. #9 Jeff:

    As I mentioned in the post – it was a straightforward example that is fairly well documented. I don’t drink. I don’t care to drink. It’s just something that is easy to understand to prove a point of the piling on of rules.

    Other examples I could have used:
    – The changing nature of tithing, along with it’s changing emphasis over time
    – The unofficial dress standards that evolved to the current beardless, short-haired, white-shirted, no-earringed, no tattooed, etc. look espoused today
    – The missionary program from the somewhat laissez-faire program in the early days of the Church, to increasingly regimented, to the specific scheduled, white-Bible, rule-bound program today
    – Etc.

    I don’t really care about the WofW per se, as it’s not really that hard to follow. If it seems to be so offensive to you, I’ll use different examples in the future. Sorry if it bugs you.

  13. Since reading Great Basin Kingdom and learning from Leonard Arrington that most church leaders came from “Puritan” New England, I have decided that it is the Puritanical culture that has been passed down over the past 170 years, rather than a Pharisaical culture. Obviously the 2 are similar, but perhaps Puritanical is more appropriate.

  14. MikeS, I thought that was a very good point you made, and the WoW example apropos. The dress standard is particularly evident, now extending to the disparagement of flipflops!!

    But I do think the missionary program might be an exception. When I went out, we were transitioning from the “rainbows,” a highly regimented approach where each word of every discussion was memorized, to one which added room for departure and testimony. This was further relaxed into a missionary-driven type of discussion, where each missionary uses his/her own examples, testimony, and scriptures they think are appropriate. Do you think this is a case where we are “going the other way?”

  15. Mike S.

    I was kind of half kidding there, but it doesn’t come through on the post very well. My apologies.

    The practices of the Church have evolved somewhat over the years, and even during the time Joseph was alive. The more enlightened one becomes, things change. In some cases, things change and no one can really figure out why.

    I’m ok with white shirts on Sunday because Elder Nelson explained it is rememberance of Baptismal and Temple covenants. I like that. But I like colored shirts as well. The beard thing I do not get since I’ve had one since 1976 except for 18 months when I was Ward Mission Leader. I think that dress on Sunday should be respectful of the Lord, so Sunday best is ok with me. Flip flops are casual. I don’t think they have a place in Sunday dress. Neither do tennis shoes.

    I find tattoos and earrings (on guys) to be very self-absorbed behavior and I do not like them. Judaism also teaches not to defile the body, particularily with tattoos.

    Today’s missionaries seem less mature than ones in the past, so they need more rules, not less. The rules go away when behavior doesn’t require them anymore.

  16. TT,

    “I posted on this topic once about how we are unaware of the anti-Judaism of this kind of rhetoric.”

    TT, Hello, you didn’t read my other post, apparrently. There is no rhetoric here, just observation. I probably agree with you more than not.

    But it simply isn’t mormon in origin, it is Christian in origin.

  17. #16 — Good point. I have an interesting friend (former LDS, now evangelical home-churcher, Stanford-educated, more theologically conservative than Cotton Mather) who runs a southern California living-history farm. He’s expressed an impression that the main influence on Mormon culture is basically New England Puritanism dipped in amber around 1790.

    He thinks that’s a good thing, btw.

  18. For all its faults, Mormon Doctrine takes a pretty hard line at decrying gospel hobbyists who oppose things such as chocolate and white bread. // One thing that surprised me as I was reading historical documents involving BYU was how they campaigned against cigars, not as violating the word of wisdom, but as pacifiers (mommy’s little suckers). The real change in the Word of Wisdom came about the same time as the way tobacco was cured for cigarettes changed. Just in time I might add.

    And there has been push back on the topic of cola drinks not violating the word of wisdom. I still remember the first bulletin I saw about that (I was still a teen, but we were in a branch). So it doesn’t always go just one way.

  19. regarding beards, I think it is so interesting to see how different cultures view them. of course all lds prophets until pres mskay had beards (with the notable exception of joseph.) in early lds history, it seems beards were almost a pious symbol, not the opposite almost seems true.

    eastern orthodox christian priests never shave because shaving is seen as vanity. (i wonder if it is their way to separate themselves from catholic priests who are clean-shaven.) additionally, the taliban would throw a man in jail if he did not have a beard. the sentence was that the man must stay in jail until a fistful of beard was grown. I really wonder if god cares whether we have beards or not-I think not, but it is interesting to me to see how pious/not pious beards are seen to be across different cultures.

  20. God has a beard. I’ve seen it myself! Beards are more common among those for which they are a symbol of piety among most Orthodox religions, Jews, Muslim, Sikhs, etc. I think McKay, who had a mustache for many years was interested in shedding the old west, old fashioned view that the world had of the Church. And, as a result, as Mike S has stated, it obtained “near doctrinal status.

    I think I told the story that I was a veil worker in the Oakland Temple for 5 years with a beard. When I moved to Colorado, I spoke to the Temple President about becoming a veil worker and he told me I would have to shave off my facial hair. When I inquired as to why, he said, “Because the Prophet said so.” I thanked him and I am not a veil worker in the Denver Temple.

  21. Jeff: I assume the picture at the top is you. I like your beard. Don’t shave it, despite the “Prophet saying so” 🙂

  22. I remember about 8-9 years ago when the Salt Lake Tribune broke the story about not being able to have a beard and work in the temple and realizing that a ward member who was a temple worker was now clean shaven. I asked him about it at church and he mumbled something about there not being anything to it. Later in the afternoon he told me that in fact it was true and they’d been told not to talk about it. Since then I’ve sat in a HP group and had the teacher say that we weren’t supposed to have beards because none of the GAs did and we, I guess, were supposed to emulate them. He then mentioned about trying not be be judgemental about beards and colored shirts which was a little odd since I was on the front row, have a beard and was wearing a blue shirt. Oh well.

  23. I had facial hair until I went to law school and started working in the law. It is frowned upon in the profession. Maybe it has something to do with the quote, “men with facial hair have something to hide.” I don’t know. It just our culture today; you’ll never see senator or a president who is running for office with a beard.

  24. A little over a year ago I had my temple recommend pulled in the wake of a marital separation. The issues raised were serious enough that I would’t have resented being questioned, those then and to this day I still have major issue with my bishop about my supposed lack of temple worthiness. Among one of the more minor points raised (likely if that was all I would still hold my recommend) is that I wore colored shirts instead of the “uniform” white that supposedly PH are supposed to be in both at the 3-hour block and when going to the temple. In fact, I model on a part-time basis (at least I did more then, I’ve not bothered in quite a while) and am very conscious of my appearance. I replied to my stuffy bishop that my appearance was very important to me, and that in particular I like how I look in black (I jokingly say “it’s a Jedi thing, you wouldn’t understand”), and (ala “Erin Brokovich”) “as long as I have one (hiney) instead of two, I’ll wear what I darned well please.”

  25. To “Bored in Vernal” re: Post#5 on 5/11/10 “Sister Missionaries and Numbers”

    The Sister’s observations about looking out first for their INVESTIGATORS’ interests and then worrying about the ‘numbers’ was spot on! SHAME on the MP for suggesting that the Sisters retain prospects that would be inappropriate for them to teach! There are reasons, including the Sisters’ very safety, why this is so! Rather, the MP needed to reach down, find his “huevos”, and chastise his Elders for not turning over female investigators per Church policy. It’s not as much fun (I recall teaching a single sister at 11 pm at her apartment, that so did NOT look good. This same young lady would show up at meetings in a tube top as well! We had a LOT of work to do with that one…but she did change and join!). Just because I and my them comp got away at the time with being reckless doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone else!
    BTW, the “same-sex” teaching rule can backfire horribly. I know of a particular gal with lesbian “issues” that since she was recently separated from her husband, was being taught by the sisters. Unfortunately, one of the sister missionaries herself had a similar problem. The result wasn’t good. Fortunately, the then investigator is now a member and the wayward sister is back in full fellowship and married in the temple. Just proves that the Adversary is all too well-armed and knows our vulnerabilites ever better than we.

  26. I’m sorry if I offend, but it is not intended. I am a very blunt person and get down to the point. You’re right, it’s not about the statistics. My question though is are you using excuses? In my opinion it really sounds like it. For example, home teaching. Why are you not friends with your home teaching families? Have you truly made an effort to become their friends? Now think about your friends you do have. Would you ever have become friends with them if you spent the time or treated them the way you treat your home teaching families? Would you have those friends if you thought of them as an assignment? What is your attitude towards home teaching? As Moroni said in chapter 7:

    5 For I remember the word of God which saith by their works ye shall know them; for if their works be good, then they are good also.

    6 For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, *except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing*.
    This goes with all of the things of the church. Sure it’s a lot. Sure we can’t get it all done all the time, but it is in the trying. Our Savior is not looking at just the here and now. He is looking at the final destination. Here is another example of what I mean. If every member tried to do their home teaching/visit teaching every month. The welfare of our members in our area (member, nonmember, etc.) would be taken care of. I’m speaking about the physical an spiritual welfare. If we truly took upon ourselves the spirit of home teaching (the love of Christ) we become friends. The need for home teaching would be removed along with the need for full time missionaries. Think of how many other things would be eliminated if we all did our part. The work that was once difficult would become easy. I know we’re not there now, but one day we will get there, we just have to try and do our part. When it comes down to our PPI with our savior will you be able to say, “Yes, I did my part”? Or will you have to say, “No, I just made up excuses instead”? Remember no man can serve two masters. Whom do you serve? I can’t judge on what you do. Only you truly know where you stand. I know that if we follow what we are supposed to do we will truly be blessed as I have. Many time we won’t realize it until after the fact. If we help our God, He will help us. I know that The Church is true and that the works of this church are true. It is here to bless us and make our way of life better and if we do as President Spencer W. Kimball says (Do it, Do it right, Do it right now) life will become easier in the long run and bless us and our families.

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