Super Villains (Message for November 8th 2015)

Scripture:  Mark 12:38-44

German bodybuilder David Prowse had made a career of playing monsters and big thugs in movies and TV throughout the 1960’s and 1970s.   In the mid 1970s he was offered his choice between two roles for a little movie being developed called Star Wars.   He was told he could play a good guy named Chewbacca or one of the villains Darth Vader.   Before being told anything about the roles, Prowse said he wanted to play Vader.   When George Lucas, the director, asked him why he was so quick to decide Prowse said “People never forget the villains.”   This is so true.  Good stories tend to have great enemies.   Often the best villains are just as, if not more, iconic than their heroic counterparts.  Good villains are ones that we love to hate.  This is a bit of an oversimplification, but in general there are three types of villains.   The first are true evil villains.   These are villains who are evil for the sake of evil.   They are a bit one dimensional.  These are villains like Voldemort from Harry Potter or Sauron from Lord of the Rings.   They mainly exist in the story to serve as an ultimate evil that the ultimate good of the heroes can fight.    The second type of villains are destructive forces of chaos.   These are villains whose very nature is to destroy and cause havoc.   This kind of villain most often appears in monster movies.   However, Heath Ledger’s joker from the Dark Knight is also a good example as he is someone who “just wants to watch the world burn.”  The final type of villain, and perhaps the most interesting type of villain, are the ones who think they are the good guys.   These are villains who view themselves as heroes of their own stories.  This kind of villain does not know they are a villain.  These are villains who think they are in the right, these are villains who for the greater good have compromised their values one to many times, or these are villains who have allowed personal ambition to corrupt their idea of what is right.   These kinds of villains are probably the most difficult to pull off, but they are some of the best in literature because they are the most human.    

            There are many resources for aspiring writers and one of them is a blog entitled “building a villain workshop”.   One of the key pieces of advice this blog gives out is “most people want to be good, they are just terrible at it.”   From a literary perspective the idea to creating a great villain is focus on the villain believes they are good and show how they have thoroughly messed it up in their thoughts process and actions.    Again this is true to life, because there are real life villains.  There is great evil in our world, but there are very people who are evil for the sake of being evil.  In our modern era, we often think of Adolf Hitler as a true super villain, but even he believed his actions were right and were justified.  Hitler did not wake up each morning saying “what is the most evil thing I can do today?”   He probably woke up thinking what he could do for the betterment of the German people, but he did so from a warped, selfish, and evil viewpoint.    Everyone thinks they are the hero of their own stories, even the villains. 

             If the bible, specifically the gospels, had villains it would be the Pharisees.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus begins with “watch out for the teachers of the law.”   Elsewhere in scripture he really lets them know what he thinks and calls them “a vicious brood of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs.”   It was the Pharisees who plotted to kill Jesus, and it was the Pharisees who urged Pilate to hang Jesus on a cross.   Yet the Pharisees did not see themselves as villains, in fact they saw themselves as the ones who were righteous.  They saw themselves as the defenders of their faith and way of life.   Yet despite that, there is no doubt that the Pharisees were villainous as Jesus declares in this morning’s scripture “these men will be punished most severely”.    This morning’s scripture forces us to question of ourselves:  Do we ever act like modern day Pharisees?

            The Pharisees were the good religious people of their day.   The Pharisees were the ones who spent a great deal of time reading the scripture.   They were the ones who organized, volunteered, and led the synagogues.   The Jewish historian Josephus records that the Pharisees were well liked and regarded by the people.   The Pharisees were a group that was dedicated to knowing and strictly following the laws of Moses.   It was important to the Pharisees to be living examples of the Torah.   They were quick to show and point how they carried out the laws as a way to teach others.     If the Pharisees existed today they would be the people who volunteered in their church all the time, who made a habit of reading scripture in public places, who drove cars covered in religious bumper stickers, and who were quick to offer their opinion about the immoral behavior of others.  

            The complaints that Jesus had about the Pharisees was not directed towards their religious zeal, to their knowledge of the scripture, or to their dedication to live it out.   All of the criticisms that Jesus leveled against the Pharisees was directly related to how they practiced their faith.   The Pharisees were very good at following the letter of the law, but they missed the hearts of the intention.   The law was designed to assist the people in focusing on God and focusing on others.  This is why when asked what the greatest commandment Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  ’This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’   All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”    The law was meant to bring the Israelites into experiencing God’s love and lead them into sharing that love and compassion with each other and with others.    Following the Torah was never supposed to be about dutifully following laws it was meant to serve as a guide to love God, to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and in live in a way that was honoring and life giving to all.  

            That is not how the Pharisees practiced their faith though.   For the Pharisees it was not about the attitude and outlook of their heart.  It was about the deed that they did.  They turned following God into a list of rules that had to be followed.   They were legalistic in how they practiced their faith, and they missed the point of the Torah by following it to the letter.    God’s intention for the Old Testament law was for it to be others focused, but the Pharisees had made it all self-focused. Pharisees literally means ones who are set apart, and the Pharisees saw themselves as set apart, as special because of their piety.   The Pharisees were very focused on personal righteousness and how well they personally did at following the law.    The Pharisees were very proud of their achievements.   This is why Jesus records, they like places of honor and why they wanted to be recognized for their righteousness.   The Pharisees made their faith all about them, and about how they felt.  The faith of the Pharisees may have been devout, but it was ultimately selfish.  From their skewed selfish views they may have viewed themselves as the good guys, but the Biblical record is clear that they were in fact the villains.  

            We may not want to admit it but we still have Pharisaic tendencies today.   We can still be guilty of viewing and practicing our faith in selfish ways.    A prime example of this is unfortunately displayed every Sunday.   If you ask anyone who has ever worked in the food service industry, they will tell you the time they least prefer to work is Sunday afternoon.  It is common knowledge among servers, that church-goers give the worst tips.   This is such a prevailing thought that studies have been done to see if this is true.  What was found is that the majority of church goers who dine out on Sunday afternoon tip an average of 17.5%.   However, the same study found that a church goer was much more likely to give a tip of 5% or less on Sunday when compared to a non-church goer.    A study from Cornell tried to put a “why” behind these numbers, and one of the conclusions this study reached is that one of the reasons why church goers are more likely to tip poorly is because they may feel donating money to charity and other good deeds gives them license to tip less.”    This viewpoint was best pictured in a receipt that went viral a few years ago.  Due to a big party, an 18% gratuity was automatically included and a pastor (no less!) crossed it out and wrote a note “I give God 10% why should I give you 18%”.   This kind of self righteous, self focused behavior, would have been very comfortable to the Pharisees.  The pastor who did this probably thought they were making an important stand of some sort, but the vast majority saw this action as very selfish.  

            Another example of Pharisee attitudes is a story told by Thom Rainer.  He is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, and he also works with churches in the area of revitalization.  He tells a story of meeting with a church that was in dire need of revitalization.  The attendance and involvement had been in decline for decades, and they had reached an average worship attendance in the teens.   Rainer shared with them why even a church of their size could still be vitalized, still make an eternal difference, and still help reach the world.    However, his words fell on deaf ears.  The very first response was a woman angrily asking “Does this mean we have to sing with a screen and not a hymnal?”   Rainer writes, “I never responded directly to the question. It was too late. The few members were of one mind about an issue so peripheral I had never anticipated it. I left saddened.  The church had chosen to die.”   This small church unfortunately displayed a common Pharisee attitude.   The expression of their faith had become all about their personal preferences.   They were more concerned about something so minor they had lost sight of the truly important.   If the way we express and practice our faith is primarily about what makes us comfortable and what we prefer then we may be venturing into the territory of the Pharisees.  

            In this morning’s scripture Jesus teaches the people to watch out for religious people who elevate following religious rules over having compassion and loving people.  He warns the people to watch out for religious people who are more concerned with their own spiritual comfort and being treated with respect then they care about putting others first.    It is no mistake that this is then contrast with the poor widow.   It is entirely possible that the rich people who gave large amounts and the poor widow gave the same percentage of their income.   They both could have followed the rules in the law about giving, but as Jesus points out the widow’s gift was far greater.   The rich Pharisees gave more money, and the probably congratulated themselves for all that they gave.  Yet they gave out of the excess, they did not give sacrificially like the widow did.   The rich were able to give enough to be impressive without actually having any true impact on them   to give sacrificially requires a very real choice and a commitment to that choice.  The woman was making a personal sacrifice that had to be driven by a very real love for God with all of her mind, heart, and soul.  

            In this scripture the Pharisee way of doing things is to follow the exact letter of the rules of giving, and then make sure everyone knows how righteous and faithful you are about giving.  However, I am not sure that is the Christian thing to do.   The Christian thing, the thing that is focused on putting God’s love into practice by loving others, would be to put the widow first.   The Christian thing would have been for one of the rich people to make a sacrifice on behalf of the woman.  They could have paid her share on her behalf so that she would not have to sacrifice the little she had.   The Christian response would be to bless the widow’s home.  

            Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike Christ.”   More than one Christian has been guilty of being more like the Pharisees than like Christ.  The Pharisees stand as an eternal warning to us in scripture.   In the gospels they are the villains, and like the best villains they resonate because we can see ourselves in them.   May we not be the kind of people that Jesus says to watch out for.   May we guard our hearts and minds from our Pharisee like attitudes.  May our faith not just be about going through righteous actions, but may be about having a heart that loves what God loves and breaks for what breaks God’s heart.   May we be slow to judge and quick to compassion.   In all of the ways that we practice our faith, may we seek to show love to our neighbors.   May sharing God’s love be more important to us than our own comfort.    May it be the our prayer and the deepest conviction of our hearts that we be the kind of Christians that are like Christ.