I’m sure the Pharisees never set out to be the bad guys of 1st-century Judaism. But here we are, two thousand years later, and scarcely anyone has a good thing to say about them. Is there anything anyone can do to rehabilitate their public image?
On the positive side, the Pharisees are a reminder of the diversity within 1st-century Judaism, just as 21st-century Judaism has its own diversity of tradition and interpretation. For their part, the Pharisees emphasized the importance of an ethical life — which I’ve always considered to be a good thing. They were observant in the law, and to a certain extent they represented a relational rather than a mechanistic approach to God. On this they were on pretty much the same page as Jesus. Like Jesus they contended that God preferred upright behavior over the sacrifice of bullocks and goats and birds. Conversion of life was prized over burnt offerings; and here the Pharisees — like Jesus — parted company from those who managed the temple and its daily sacrifices.
That shared perspective may explain why Jesus was so critical of the Pharisees. It wasn’t that Jesus thought they were wrong when compared to the keepers of the temple. Rather, the Pharisees were right, but they just weren’t completely right. So it was that both Jesus and Paul parted company from a group which had come so close but didn’t follow through to the logical conclusion.
Jesus may have had much in common with the Pharisees, but he found fault with them on at least two important items. In Sunday’s gospel passage (Luke 18: 9-14) Jesus took the Pharisees to task for their haughtiness, because they exalted themselves in the eyes of others. In contrast to the tax-collector who humbly admitted his sinfulness, the pride of the Pharisee blinded him to his own faults. The result? He logically concluded that he was far superior to the hordes of people who stumbled daily in their religious observance.
Secondly, Jesus called the Pharisees on the carpet for their lack of mercy for those less observant than they. Pharisees added to the religious burden of others, but in fact they had chosen the high ground for themselves. They devised rules that were easier for themselves but more difficult if not impossible for others. They then turned around to condemn the others for their failure. As Jesus pointed, they made burdens for others to carry, but they were not willing to help others to carry those burdens.
What the Pharisees seem to have forgotten is that it is God who initiates everything, and it is God alone who redeems. That redemption is never self-derived, even if you are a Pharisee. So it is that neither a herd of bulls sacrificed on an altar nor the strictest daily practice will seal the deal with God. Redemption is a gift from God, and anything we do is merely a response to God’s generosity.
Yet another reason why Jesus is so tough on the Pharisees shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us. The Pharisees may have been a distinct party within 1st-century Judaism, but the inclination to be a Pharisee is the sort of behavior that is latent within each of us. Every now and again we all imagine that the good we do will somehow earn points with God, and God will have to honor those points when we turn up to cash them in at the end of our lives. The good we do can also tempt us to compare ourselves with others. It allows us to mouth that self-justifying question: “Why can’t others do even half the things I am doing for God? If people only knew all the good I do for humanity!”
But it doesn’t work that way, because God plays by a different rule book. The good we do is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work within us. The good we do is an answer to God’s call and gift of grace. It’s the response we give to the vocation that God has crafted and given to each of us. So it is that the good we do is actually an expression of our discipleship to Jesus Christ.
When you boil it all down, I think there’s a huge advantage for us to play by God’s rule book rather than our own. As crypto-Pharisees we can do all sorts of good deeds, but at the end of the day we always have to wonder whether we should have done more. By God’s rules, however, we’re spared that doubt. God loves us despite the fact that we could never have done enough. Does that mean that the Lord loves us in spite of ourselves? No. It only means that the Lord loves us because of ourselves, warts and all.
+On 23 October we celebrated the feast of the dedication of the abbey church, which was blessed fifty-five years ago. Some seventy-five friends of the abbey joined us for Mass and a luncheon; and afterward Brother David-Paul Lange gave a wonderful presentation on the renovation of the Breuer wing of the monastery as well as plans for the preservation of the abbey church.
+Autumn is my favorite time of the year at Saint John’s, and on these days I especially like to take the outside route to get from my room to the church for evening prayer. At that time of day it is nearly dark, and the cold crisp air is exhilarating — at least to me. Visitors to campus also notice that the fall colors are in their last hurrah, and many if not most of the leaves have fallen. Today’s photos are evidence of that.