31st Sunday of Ordinary Time “Labeling Others As Pharisees” PDF Version
The Pharisees were not inherently nor necessarily evil men. Though there is a tendency to reduce their presence throughout the Gospel Accounts to make them the sole enemies of Jesus Christ. It is important to understand where the Pharisees came from and what they saw their mission to be during the days Jesus of Nazareth walked upon the earth.
Around 200 years before the birth of Christ, in the aftermath of the war between Jewish freedom fighters, lead by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, and the Greek empire, a new religious movement emerged. They called themselves the Pharisees. They were the spiritual heirs of pious men and women known as the Hasidim during the war between Israel and Greece. These men and their families were the ones who refused to abandon their religious beliefs and adherence to the Law of Moses when they were ordered to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods and abandon their religious and cultural identity to become like their pagan Greek conquerors.
For more than a century, the Pharisees sought to reform their communities, bringing those who had abandoned their faith in the God of Israel to begin following the Law of Moses again and observing the customs and practices that formed the religious and cultural identity of the Jewish People, be it in the eating of kosher food, the observance of the weekly Sabbath, the recitation of specific prayers and all other aspects of religious and communal life that made the Jewish People the Chosen People of God.
The Pharisees were able to draw many people back to God and their ancestral faith, and they took it upon themselves to be involved in the education of the youth and of offering themselves in service in their local synagogues. They were not members of the priesthood of Israel, but part of the lay faithful, and they did not necessarily occupy positions of power, prominence or leadership in their local communities.
Tragically, like many reform movements, they began to go astray and had a tendency to give exaggerated importance to certain aspects of their faith, such as an overly scrupulous observance of the Sabbath rest, meticulous cleansing of hands, pots, and utensils and careful payment on tithes for non-essential things like garden herbs, but then neglected more essential matters of the Law of Moses such as the care of the poor and marginalized and the abandonment of practising mercy and charity when circumstances demanded their observance.
It was for these reasons that Our Lord frequently challenged the Pharisees. He did not do so out of hatred or because he saw them to be his sworn enemies or for having abandoned their faith in His Heavenly Father. Rather, he saw them as men of great religious zeal and fervour who had begun to go astray and had excused themselves for loving God in their neighbour because they found more delight in externally being seen as pious followers of God, but interiorly had lost their ability to show mercy and compassion to those who were in need.
It was not that Jesus thought them to be inherently evil or hypocritical men because externally they wore the religious emblems of the Jewish faith. Jesus himself would have worn fringes on his clothing as a sign of His adherence to the Law of Moses and would also have daily placed on His forearm and forehead the phylacteries that were prescribed in the daily recitation of the Shema Israel Prayer. But He was right to correct the Pharisees for their pride and vanity in wanting to be noticed in the ways in which they observed the faith of their ancestors instead of fading into the background to allow God’s glory to shine forth in the simple yet pious ways that would love God with all their being and their neighbour as themselves.
Each and every Catholic should be on guard to the ways in which we can begin to go astray in our practice of the Catholic Faith, in ways akin to the faults of the Pharisees. In particular, we should be weary of being too quick to label someone as a Pharisee.
In the past few years, there is a disturbing trend in our Church to begin accusing fellow Catholics of being like the Pharisaic opponents of Jesus Christ because they seek to adhere to all that the Catholic Church teaches to be true, including contentious teachings like Pope Francis’ and our Church’s opposition to the growing pressure to indoctrinate children in the brave new world of gender ideology. Too often Catholics who adhere to each and every teaching of our Church are now being called fundamentalists, rigid, intolerant, and Pharisees.
What is most distributing is that these labels are not being given exclusively by those outside of our Church, by both new and ancient opponents of our faith, but also by those within the Church, our own brothers and sister in Christ! It is strange and challenging times that many Catholic Christians face when to believe in what the Church has always held to be true are now being labelled as fundamentalist Pharisees for doing so!
Being a Catholic Christian in this day and age is difficult enough without us having to resort to internal name calling and divisive actions that do not build up unity among Catholics but cause further division, division that brings scandal to the world and make us less effective in drawing others to salvation in Christ Jesus and His Church.
To counter this toxic attitude, let us be courageous enough to look at ourselves and ask if in any way I have adopted a pharisaic attitude in regards to our faith? Adhering to the fullness of what our Church teaches will not make you a Pharisee, but to say we believe all that our Church teaches in order to be saved and then begin to judge others harshly for not doing likewise can certainly lead us to become like a misguided Pharisees of old. Practicing a life of intense personal and communal piety, that is visible for others to see, does not make us a Pharisee, but to exhibit our piety to draw attention to ourselves and to judge others harshly for not doing likewise can certainly lead us to be like the pompous Pharisees of old. Being recognized as having a well formed understanding of the Catholic faith and teaching others about all that is good, true and beautiful in our Church does not make us a Pharisee, but showing off our knowledge to win the esteem of others and judging others harshly for having misinformed perceptions of the Catholic faith can certainly make us into the conceited Pharisees of old.
We know that many of the Pharisees would become the very first Christians of Jerusalem, many of whom, like St. Paul, were once the fiercest opponents of Christ and His Gospels. Likewise, let us seek to reach out to those who have succumbed to the same spirit of pride and severity that turned the hearts of many Pharisees to oppose Jesus Christ, so that through prayer, penance and charity, we may bring them to know God’s mercy and join us in being co-workers in the Lord’s Vineyard.