Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ Mt 19:3
The content of today’s message from the Gospels is about marriage and divorce, but today I am not going to focus on the message so much as the messengers, namely the Pharisees and Jesus. We all know that the Pharisees aren’t the good guys in the Gospels. In fact, I find it most accurate to think of them as a composite sketch of all the bad tendencies of religious people and leaders in particular. What kind of attitude and character does a Pharisees have? They are so obsessed with the rules of right and wrong, that they tend to love rules more than they love people. Now as I always say, if you are reading the Bible right, its not just a story about what happened once back then, but the story of what is always true even now. Yes, there were some Pharisees in Jesus’ time who loved rules more than people, but the real point is that there is a Pharisee in each of us, parishioner and priest, that tends to love rules more than people. The Pharisees in today’s reading are obsessed with rules about marriage, but the Pharisee within us can judge and shame others or ourselves about one hundred other things… a priest should or shouldn’t do this, a real Armenian is or isn’t like this, my husband or wife or kids must be or must not be like this.
There is a Pharisee in each of us, but fortunately there is a Christ within each of us, that if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, is always willing to put our inner Pharisee into his/her proper place. Always reminding us to love people, others and ourselves, above any rule. Do I have any wisdom or advice to offer you in keeping your inner Pharisee in check? I have something better than wisdom or advice, I can share an example of someone in my life who did as good a job as anyone I know in turning down the divisive voice of their inner Pharisee and turning up the healing voice of their Lord, their deepest self. This person was Fr. Dajad Davidian whose funeral I just returned from.
I have never in my life met someone who was so little concerned with rules and so able to look with love and connect with any person he came into contact with. There were dozens of stories and examples of Der Dajad looking beyond church rules and acting by the first rule of love. He was among the first to ignore the Pharisee which builds walls between Antellias and Ethcmiadzin, working for unity for 50 years when it was controversial to do so. He would ignore the inner Pharisee which tells us to judge the homeless person who shows up at the church door, and instead invited him to dinner at his house. He ignored the Pharisee which denies baptism to the child of an unwed mother in Armenia, instead seeing through to the faith and commitment of mother and child. Der Dajad never met a rule that he wouldn’t on occasion break, and as our former and current Primate acknowledged in their eulogies- Der Dajad has made many a Primate squirm. But both also said that the challenge Der Dajad presented was usually a Gospel challenge where rules are often broken for the greater rule of love. Now anyone who knew Der Dajad would never confuse him for a Saint. He had noticeable shortcomings, but as we read in our Bible, love erases many sins, and love of Christ and his people was always in Der Dajad’s heart of hearts.
A story that I heard over coffee from a brother clergy after the wake typified for me Der Dajad’s love of people over rules. Der Dajad was this young Armenian clergyman’s teacher of Pastoral theology not long ago in Ethcmiadzin. He recalled the first day of class when Der Dajad proclaimed to 40 young seminarians; “whatever you do don’t become celibate priests, trust me you should get married.” Though overstated, he was bold and right to say so, since too many young men in Armenia make an immature decision to become celibate, causing much pain for them and the church thereafter. He also got into a bit of trouble for these words, but Der Dajad didn’t just stop at words. This young priest raised his hand after Der Dajad told the class to get married and said, Der Dajad, look around this seminary, how do you expect us to meet any women to become married priests? Well don’t you know any special young ladies from your home towns? Sure said the young priest, but we hardly have any time to go home and you know we don’t have phones. Well use my phone, Der Dajad said. So the professor of Pastoral Theology at Gevorkyan Seminary in Holy Etchmiadzin spent a good part of his class each week with a rotating list of 40 young men using his cell phone to keep in touch with potential Yeretskins.
Der Dajad wasn’t following the rules of what he should have been teaching at Seminary. And he wasn’t giving people a list of what is right and wrong in pastoral ministry. He followed one rule; out of love and concern for the long-term welfare of these young men, he did what he thought they needed-come what may. The world would be a better place if more of us were as bold as Der Dajad in breaking the rules and judgements of the Pharisee within and around us, so that the Golden rule of love for God and others might be our only calling, now and always; amen.