Discipleship: Making Good Little Pharisees?

Caravaggio-The Calling of Saint Matthew{summary: the way we disciple others in the church is far too often a results-based process, and not a grace-driven one. Here, I explore Jesus’ example in Matthew as a guide for us. And, once again, we see Jesus’ radical application of grace to his Disciples’ lives.}

I’m taking a class on “The Practice of Discipleship”. Some discussions on our online message boards inspired these thoughts. Discipleship, as many people could tell you is all about “following Jesus”. After all, that’s how Jesus himself invited his disciples into it. But as I was thinking about this, I realized something: Pharisees had disciples too.

Now, with “Pharisee Discipleship” the point was to let that Pharisee get all up in your business so that you could become a good, well-behaved Pharisee someday. Christian Discipleship, as we are often told, is not about following Christians per se, but following Christians who are following Christ. The ultimate goal is to follow Christ and to help one another do that.

This is how it works in theory. I can’t speak for everyone, but at least in my experience, a lot of Christian Discipleship subtly looks more like the type that creates well-behaved Pharisees than the one that truly follows Christ.

I wonder: what does true “grace-driven” discipleship look like?

Yes, yes, we “understand” discipleship to be about following Jesus, and not rules. But don’t we all too often fall into following Jesus in order to better follow the rules? Even if we don’t think that explicitly, don’t our actions often betray this belief? Isn’t that the litmus test for “how we’re doing”? Unfortunately, even as we try and focus so much on Jesus, in the end, it’s often just to be a “better Christian”.

As I talked about yesterday, we’re having to read the Gospel of Matthew for this class with the idea of Discipleship in the back of our minds. Sure, I have read Matthew before, but reading it with Discipleship in the foreground is so fascinating, especially as it pertains to this whole tension between focusing on Jesus and “behaving rightly”.

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus seems to have a relentless, inexplicable ability to strike a beautiful balance between meeting the disciples where they are and, in a sense, acting without any consideration of where they are and how good they are at doing this whole discipleship thing. In other words, there isn’t this whole “Jesus loves you as you are but he doesn’t leave you as you are” idea that we’ve heard about endlessly. Jesus simply is himself in community with these disciples, does amazing things, asks some questions, answers some of their questions, and gives them little “missions” to go on.

I can’t recall a single time, though, that he focuses on their behavior or performance. We get no word on how their main “ministry internship” goes when Jesus sends them out to minister to towns in the surrounding area. It doesn’t seem to matter. In fact, there is a time that they clearly break Jewish law by picking grain on the Sabbath and Jesus defends them, not by saying that haven’t broken the law, but by saying (1) David, long ago, did it too, and (2) by saying, in essence, that because he is now here, there are bigger things to worry about.

This is not how discipleship looks today. Too often, we see discipleship as the way to “make better Christians”. Even that well-intentioned “meet you as you are, but you can’t stay as you are” idea is simply using Jesus as a means, context, and justification for the ends of behavioral change.

Throughout Matthew, we don’t get “accountability” reports on “how the disciples are doing”. There are a few mess-ups along the way (like when they can’t cast out a demon, or when Peter tries to walk on water but starts sinking, etc.). But almost every timeJesus’ reply is simply “you lack faith”. Also, from what I can remember, each time he says this, it’s in response to the disciples noticing their own shortfall and asking Jesus why that happened. Jesus doesn’t ever come busting on the scene yelling about their faithlessness. 

I wonder if this is more descriptive than prescriptive. He never commands them (that I can find) to “get more faith” or even “believe harder”. He simply gives them a vision for what it would look if they had that faith (throwing mountains into the sea), and then continues ministering irregardless of how they internalize that vision. Whenever something in their discipleship messes up, they ask about it and he just says “you still lack faith” and he then continues to move for their redemption, in spite of their lack of faith, and not because of whatever faith they have.

In Jesus’ discipleship, he does not respond or move in reaction to the disciple’s faith. He is unwavering in his mission and ministry, even as the disciples seem to flounder. He is secure in his unfaltering storehouse of grace that he has for his disciples. He puts them in community so close that they can’t get away from each other and their brokenness, and then simply ministers. That’s it. And they bumble along.

Ironically, though, there is one group that Jesus evaluates and gives performance “reports cards” on: the Pharisees. He calls them out for their lack of righteousness and pure living. He names their sin and points out their hypocrisy. But he never does this with his disciples.

It seems that Jesus is a gentleman. If you want to be a Pharisee, he is glad to hold you to it. And honestly, I have known my fair share of Evangelicals (and myself, at times) that hold themselves (and others) to this standard as well. It hasn’t seemed to go well with us.

If you want to be a disciple, however, Jesus is relentless in his grace towards you, and is eager to move in your midst, for your good and His glory, regardless of your performance for him. I pray we can figure out what a truly grace-driven discipleship looks like.

If you’re interested, a couple of years back, I wrote a five-part blog series on similar ideas, based on a sermon I preached to a group of prison inmates in Philadelphia. It was called “Holy Week & Meditations on Radical Grace“.

[image credit: “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio]


12 thoughts on “Discipleship: Making Good Little Pharisees?

  1. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”, said the Publican in Luke 18. There is no discipleship without humility. Let this prayer saturate your life and it will change you.

    There are no reports on the apostles performance, yes, but what is the point of life? In the East, it is said to be “union with God”; that is Theosis or Divine Vision. In a certain way, the disciples are united with Christ simply by his physical presence in their lives. Almost all of their “lacks of faith” are instances of them learning humility. I’m beginning to understand the difference between the western “Justification/Sanctification” model and the one in the east, which I don’t have a term for, so I’ll just call it “Salvation”. Salvation is an ongoing and dynamic reality rooted in humility. The humble will certainly have their Pharisee moments, but their humility will keep them on the path to righteousness.


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