Why We Don’t Like Pharisees

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

We don’t like Pharisees. We don’t want to be Pharisees. But what exactly was a Pharisee?

A purist. Separated from the world for the sake of purity.

The ancient practice of temple Judaism had grown worldly. The prophets had long decried how pilgrims and priests just went through the motions. And the “Jewish” monarchy hardly maintained even the pretense of religion.

The Pharisees sought purity of heart and soul, in the home and in small communities. By scrupulous observance of devotional practices. They read the Scriptures assiduously, with faith and reverence. They cared about people’s souls. They despised idolatry and corruption.

So what’s not to like? Why do we dislike the Pharisees? How about three reasons.

1. They sought devotional integrity, instead of empty temple ritual. But in doing so, they fell into the same trap that they tried so zealously to escape.

At the Temple, no one really undergoes a conversion of heart! they thought. Christ replied: Guess what, Pharisees? You go through the motions with your pieties also. Without real conversion of heart.

2. This trap of empty external-ity turned the Pharisees into outrageous hypocrites. Their ‘system’ failed to take one very important thing into account: the unfathomable depth of mankind’s inveterate moral weakness.

Now, people called Jesus ‘rabbi.’ He practiced devotional prayer and worship, like the Pharisees did. He frequented the synagogue, like they did. Christ interacted with many Pharisees.

I’m not calling Jesus a Pharisee. But there are certain walks-and-talks-like-a-duck similarities.

Except: The Pharisees responded to the reality of human sin and weakness by a. judging it in others, and b. pretending it didn’t exist in themselves.

Meanwhile, the Lord Jesus responded to the reality of human sin and weakness by…

Grunewald the Small Crucifixion

3. The Pharisees’ hypocrisy made them mean. When your religion insists on something impossible, it becomes an instrument of human oppression; it leads to false judgments.

The Pharisees insisted on scrupulous observance of their practices, all based on the Torah. By this means, you could become perfect. Or so the system claimed.

But it didn’t work. Still doesn’t.

We need mercy from above. We need grace from God–grace that we didn’t, and can’t, ‘earn.’ We need to humble ourselves and face the truth about our miserable sinfulness.

That’s the only path to perfection. And it’s the only way to avoid judging others in a pharisaical manner.

Fallen Man’s List


From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within, and they defile. (Mark 7:21-23)

Thus says the Lord. I think we can find a lot of answers by reflecting on these two sentences. First, let’s make sure we understand the words.

From within people, from their hearts, come… 1. Evil Thoughts. Okay, yes. As in, Yes, I know what that means. And, yes, I am guilty of it.

2. Unchastity All of us grown-ups know what that means? Unchaste acts or unchaste thoughts. Unchaste websites or unchaste smartphone apps–unchaste anything. Anything other than: love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.

Theft. Murder. Adultery. Greed.
We know the definitions of these words, I think. On Wednesday, cold-blooded murder punched us square in the face. But let’s finish the list and come back to that.

7. Malice. Not an easy word to grasp the meaning of. The more prevalent malice is, the harder it is to see. It’s like the opposite of sunlight. The sunnier the day, the more sunlight we see. Malice is the opposite. The more malice there is around us, the more and more blind to it we become.

On the cross, Christ revealed how God thinks of us. No malice. God made Himself the victim of all the Devil’s immeasurable malice, because our Creator holds no malice in His heart towards us. He wills only that we would share the Father’s love. On Wednesday morning , we saw malice, in all its grotesque ugliness. But, like I said, let’s finish the words in the sentence, then we’ll come back to the $10,000 question.

Next word: Deceit. I think we know the meaning: wrongly keeping someone in the dark about the truth.

9. Licentiousness. Anyone know what that means? …Driver’s license, pilot’s license, license to practice medicine… License-tiousness. Artistic license can be a good thing, like when Michelangelo used artistic license in depicting the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. But taking moral license means saying to myself something like: “Keep holy the Sabbath is a great commandment, but I have a soccer game!” Or “I know I already ate ten cookies, and that’s gluttony. But I’m going to have another one anyway, because I want to. I give myself a license to have an eleventh cookie.”

10. Envy. We understand the word, I think. 11. Blasphemy. Speaking of God, or anything associated with God, without reverence. 12. Arrogance. Again, I know what it means. And I know that I am guilty of it.

Mr T13. Folly. Anybody remember Mr. T? I pity the fool. I pity the fool who acts or speaks without thinking. The fool who makes decisions without first asking, What would the Lord have me do?

Ok. That’s the whole list. Guilty we are. All of us, somewhere along the line. We are children of Adam and Eve, members of the fallen race, for whom Christ had to die, so that we could receive mercy instead of punishment.

The Jews had their customs (as we read at Holy Mass). All of their practices had some reasonable origin in the piety of their forefathers. Washing up before a meal? That’s a good habit to have. Like keeping the kitchen clean, and all the plates and pots and pans. Keeping the Sabbath, as a genuine day of rest and spiritual refreshment. All good.

When the Lord Jesus condemned the Pharisees, He hardly intended to declare that eating with your hands dirty is the Law of the New Covenant. But: Carrying on as if washing my hands and letting the goyim do my work for me on the holy day… carrying on as if such things make a person righteous—that’s called hypocrisy. “A sinner? Oh, no. Not me! Look at my clean pots and plates!” That’s Pharisaism.

Because within us, within the innermost secret heart of any member of the human race, we can find the desperate smallness, the obtuse pride, the propensity to malice which somehow convinced Adam and Eve to trust the Devil, instead of God. The Devil managed to convince the First Parents of the human race that he is more honest than God.

He’s not, of course. Satan is a liar. The Liar. Maybe one reason why God let this terrible thing happen Wednesday is to remind us, each of us, in the secret center of our hearts:

“Look: You know neither the day nor the hour. This pilgrim life is fragile and short. Pray for the dead, pray for the suffering. And seek God. Seek God’s kingdom.” To find God, we just have to humbly admit that we need Him. Admit that we are gaping vortices of emptiness, without Jesus Christ.

After falling away from God by his pride, the devil despaired. Satan never hoped to find mercy. But that doesn’t make Satan a charmingly self-indulgent, fat, and rummy devil. His despair makes him, above all, perversely self-righteous.

The farthest thing away from Christ is not any particular item on the list of bad moves which children of Adam and Eve tend to make–the list which Christ spelled out for us in the gospel passage. The farthest thing away from Christ is the self-righteousness that would deny our need for Him. When we turn to our God on the cross, and open our inner floodgates, and cry out, “Lord, have mercy!”–He does.


Leonardo da Vince Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child, Leonardo da Vinci

“We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.” (I Thessalonians 2:7) Here St. Paul expresses the kind of love that the Church has for us, Her children.

We look, of course, to our Holy Father, and to the supreme magisterium of the Church, for guidance–when it comes to how the Church best loves as a mother. The Magisterium teaches us what the Church’s love involves by way of succor, and by way of discipline. We don’t love well if we love more indulgently than Holy Mother Church, or more severely. Those above us, the Pope and the bishops, teach us exactly how indulgent, and how severe, to be.

As for ourselves, let’s focus for a moment not on the mother, but on the baby.

The infant at the breast has no subtlety when it comes to communication, and no pride—no delusions whatsoever of independence. When the child is hungry, he or she simply… cries. Caterwauls, desperately.

That’s us. The crying babies. We can’t be too proud to cry. We can’t be too proud to acknowledge that we need the Lord to help us, that we need the grace which the sacraments give us. We need the sacred ministry of the Church Christ established more desperately than babies need milk.

Our gospel readings at Holy Mass today and tomorrow offer us a perfect warm-up for the passage we will read this Sunday. I’ll have more to say about the business of our Lord condemning the Pharisees then.

But we find the key to understanding Christ’s blistering condemnation of the Pharisees, I think, by putting ourselves in the place of the baby at the breast.

The evil of pharisaism lay not in any of their ceremonies and customs themselves, many of which were perfectly laudable. What the Pharisees lacked was: unpretentious dependence on the merciful love of God. They forgot that they were babies at the breast. Let’s remember that we are.

Religion, Pharisees, and the Genuine Well-Being of Man

da Vinci "Head of a Pharisee"
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”
“Who among you, if your son falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out”—no matter what day it is? (see Luke 14:5)

Pretty safe to say: We would. If we lived in a place where there were a lot of cisterns for our sons to be falling into. And we would pull our oxen out, too—if we had oxen.

We wouldn’t say to ourselves, “Lordy, it’s the Sabbath! That ox of mine, that son of mine will just have to wait in that cistern ‘till tomorrow. If he drowns? Well, can’t be helped.”

No. We would rescue. Because sons, and even oxen, and other capital investments, pertain to something that takes priority: the genuine well-being of man.

The genuine well-being of man takes absolute priority. It must be the center of religion. Because God—Whom we worship by our religion, Whom we obey by our religion—He wills the genuine well-being of man above all. He made the constellations, and the mountains, and the rainbows, and the chickens, and the dogs, for one reason: to delight us.

I don’t think we can doubt that Jesus was mocking the Pharisees and scholars in His exchange with them about healing on the sabbath. You guys are utterly ridiculous to turn religion into something that thwarts the well-being of man! That is absolutely backwards and ludicrous.

Maybe this is the key to untying a particular knot, when it comes to interpreting the Lord Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees.

We see and hear Him mocking, criticizing, excoriating the Pharisees and scribes for their ‘traditionalism.’ But Christ Himself embraced tradition with unswerving fidelity: He insisted on the Ten Commandments, on the Passover observances, on the authority of the entire Law and Prophets.

“Pharisaism” does not equal ‘traditionalism,’ simply put. Pharisaism, in the bad sense, is: Religion that thwarts the genuine well-being of man. Religion that thwarts the genuine well-being of man is actually a form of irreligion, a form of self-worship, of idolatry, of paganism.

Now, don’t give me credit for this insight, brilliant as it may be. The idea that religion must serve the genuine well-being of man is the heart of the ministry of the Vatican II popes, namely Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

(Not to mention the ministry of a lot of other people, too, like: Pope Pius XII, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Leo XIII, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Peter, St. Paul…)

How Not to Be a Whitened Sepulcher

“You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.” (Luke 11:44)

Maybe you remember how we talked about this a little two years ago. All existing reality is divided into three sections: The holy, the clean, and the unclean.

God is holy and the source of life, vitality. Clean means adjoining God; it means vigor and the full-flowering of the gift of life; cleanness allows growth. Unclean means separated from God, squelching life, making growth difficult or impossible, impeding and thwarting the unfolding of God-given vitality.

Now, we are not talking about Ebola here. Though let’s certainly pray that the Lord will help everyone suffering from the disease, and that those who have died will rest in His peace.

thomas mertonWhat we are talking about is the severity of the imprecation that the Lord leveled against the Pharisees: Woe to you who spread the vigor-killing uncleanness of your self-righteousness, by covering it over with a cloak that makes it look clean!

St. Paul put it so beautifully: Against love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control there can be no law. None of these can be found in any unclean tomb; none of these can impede life. To the contrary, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are the sign of the greatest vigor, the cleanness of union with God.

Apparently, something came out in Rome on Monday, while I sat in the woods reading Merton, eating pb&j’s, and trying to pray a little. I think we should remember that the things the Church stands for don’t change at a Vatican press conference.

Problem is, there may be whitened sepulchers of self-righteousness both to the right and to the left, as we continue to tread the path the Lord has laid out for us in AD 2014.

–There can be no divine law against faithfulness and chastity. Kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both unfaithfulness and unchastity.

–By the same token, there is no divine law against patience and gentleness. Which kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both impatience and rudeness.

Breathless journalists tend to forget: there is only so far away that people can run from their consciences. Sooner or later, our consciences can and will do their work–if not in this pilgrim life, then at the moment we step into the next. And the human desire to make peace with death will keep the Church in business until way after USA Today folds.

The Lord Jesus ferociously imprecated the Pharisees for trying to burden other peoples’ consciences with burdens that they themselves couldn’t carry. Let’s make it our business to accept the rightful burdens that our own consciences legitimately put on us, and to help others carry the burdens that their consciences legitimately put on theirs.

And of course the best way to pursue this business is to go to Confession every month.


And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but yours eat and drink.” (Luke 5:33)

Ancient Jewish weddings went on for a week. Even venerable rabbis drank and danced at them. The Books of Moses enjoined one solemn day of fasting per year, the Day of Atonement. If this day fell during a wedding celebration, the wedding took precedence and the guests did not fast.

On the other hand: During the second-temple period after the Babylonian exile, the pious Jew fasted on nothing—no food or water until sundown—twice a week. John the Baptist apparently taught his disciples to do the same. And, at the very moment recounted in today’s gospel reading at Mass, as the Lord feasted with reformed tax collectors and prostitutes in Matthew’s home, John languished in Herod’s dungeons.

So the question they asked Jesus about fasting was an honest one, not a trick or an attack. In replying to the question, the Lord did John the honor of quoting him. John had introduced the image of the wedding, and had identified himself as the best man who rejoices when the groom, Christ, arrives.

Hilaire Belloc
Hilaire Beloc

Seems to me like the whole business gives us three good principles.

1. The Kingdom of God involves all the joy, all the festivity, all the dancing and merriment of a wedding. When Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s music and laughter and good red wine,” he grasped the most fundamental of all truths.

2. That said, the Bridegroom no longer dwells on earth, and the Paschal Mystery by which He fulfilled His mission involved the cruel agony of His Passion and crucifixion. Here on earth now, we long for the heavenly kingdom. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are those who mourn. A Christian must fast.

3. The Church Herself is the Bride. Her laws, her rules regarding fasting allow us to fast as one, as the united Body of Christ, so that all danger of pharisaism among us is removed.

To some, the Church’s laws seem onerous, since most people don’t even know what fasting is. To others, Her laws seem lax, since we generally only have to go hungry two days a year. And even on Fridays, we have the option of substituting another act of penance for abstaining from meat, outside of Lent.

Some have proposed that fasting according to law destroys the true spirit of fasting, since our fast rather should come from personal devotion and be altogether invisible on the outside. Others insist that it is too easy to slip up, when we try to keep private fast days.

Given all this, it seems to me that we simple Christians living in the world do best to keep the fasts and days of abstinence enjoined by Church law, according to the rules laid down.

Prophets’ Memorials

In the last of His imprecations of the Pharisees, the Lord condemns them for building memorials of the ancient prophets.

‘See how learned and pious we are! We frequent these memorials of the divine men of old! They were totally holy, and so are we! Since we have these stone memorials, we can show everyone that we have more religion than the common people.’

Tomb of Zechariah, son of Jehoida, in the Kidron Valley
Tomb of Zechariah, son of Jehoida, in the Kidron Valley
Christ insists that the monuments stand as empty shells. They had been built on earth to honor martyrs who never basked in any earthly glory. The prophets never reveled in their holiness by frequenting little monuments. The prophets languished in cisterns, or faced exile, or death–solely because they preferred the truth to currying favor with the rich and powerful.

I think we can say that the Lord’s point is:

The only real ‘memorial’ to the holy prophets is a conscience as pure and upright as theirs, a heart as honest as theirs, a religion as humble and obedient as theirs.

The ancestors killed the prophets; they did not honor them. The prophets spoke uncomfortable things, which made the rapacious hearts of the half-pagan kings violently angry. Better to snuff out the voice that accuses my unclean conscience. Because I have grown too attached to selfishness to admit the truth and change my life.

In the subsequent passage of the gospel, Jesus weeps for hard-hearted Jerusalem. ‘I would have gathered you to Myself, like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. But you prefer your petty egotism.’

Christ cursed hypocrisy and shallowness with even more pitiless rancor than the ancient prophets did. But the Lord wept with a gentle and aching heart for the love that could have been, the love that He would have shared with His people, if only they had been willing to let go of their grasping self-righteousness.

Humble honesty about myself will cost me my ego. But, in its place, I will be able to find the joy of communion with God. To defend my delusions of superiority, I would have to kill the prophet, and make up for it by putting a pretty sculpture over his grave. Better just to listen to him, and humble myself before God.

“Where I am Going…”

Passion of the Christ Today you will be with me

“…you cannot come.” (John 7:34, 8:21, 13:33, 13:36)

Lord Jesus said this multiple times, to different audiences.

At Holy Mass today, we hear Him say it to the Pharisees. He went on to tell them that they would die in their sins, because they did not believe in Him, did not believe in God incarnate, the only-begotten eternal Word made man.

The Lord also said the exact same sentence to another group of people, and then to one of them in particular. Anyone remember? “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

To the Apostles at the Last Supper. And then particularly to St. Peter. “Where I am going you cannot come.”

But Jesus did not tell St. Peter and the Apostles that they would die in their sins. Instead, He gave them a commandment, and then made them a promise.

Who remembers the commandment?

“Love one another.”

Who remembers the promise? ‘Where I am going, you cannot come now, but…’

“You shall follow afterward.”

En otras palabras: When we look upon Christ lifted up, skewered to the cross in agony, dereliction, and death–when we look upon Him with His arms outstretched between heaven and earth–when we gaze upon the crucifix and see not defeat and meaninglessness, but rather the burning light of God’s eternal love–when we see Jesus with faith, we do not die in our sins. No. We live for glory eternal.

Sermon-on-the-Mount Sense & Motivation

moses_ten_commandmentsThe Commandments do not come from some place far away from our experience. Granted, the Lord spelled them out as a list of ten on Mount Sinai, which does seem like a long way away from here. But the tables given to Moses do not say anything which we do not, in our heart of hearts, already know. Starting with the first commandment, that we acknowledge God. Truth is, all the rest of the commandments follow from #1.

And we know, practically from the womb, that a glorious Power greater than us made all and governs all. We know that our job, our common task, our vocation as human beings bound together by our inherent social nature, is: To serve the grand designs of God as faithfully and as lovingly as we possibly can. We cannot consistently maintain any other vision of life, unless we lull ourselves into living a lie by repeated acts of self-debasement. God’s plan involves glorious goodness beyond what we can imagine. He gives us the insight and the honesty to know that we must diligently and consistently serve His plan. Humbly. That’s why we exist.

So when the Lord Jesus ascended His own mount and gave a sermon explaining the Ten Commandments, unfolding all of their profound demands, He was really explaining to us the most fundamental imperatives of our own hearts. He explained what our own consciences demand of us when we give ourselves the peace and quiet to hear it.

Continue reading “Sermon-on-the-Mount Sense & Motivation”

Woe to you Pharisees, you fools!

(Luke 11:40)

In the beginning, man fell away from God. Many generations passed, during which the silent sky stretched over human history. Then God called Abraham.

The friendship between the Lord and Abraham was so pure and intimate that succeeding generations had a very difficult time getting a grip on it.

Fundamentally, Abraham lived with his heart lifted up to the Lord, trusting in His gracious promises. Abraham did not fret that he would die before the promises were fulfilled. Instead, his pure heart rejoiced in simple trust. God is good. He will provide.

This faith of Abraham, the faith of Israel, reaches into the absolute epicenter of the human soul. It is as invisible as God Himself.

Over the course of the history of the Chosen People, the holy faith manifested itself in different external trappings. The law written on the inner heart of man was spelled out in stone on Mt. Sinai. Abraham’s religious acts were carried out perpetually in the Temple in Jerusalem. King David ruled the people with the same faith, and he sang it in the Psalms.

Then the Israelites were driven into exile by their enemies. All the external trappings were taken away. The Temple was razed to the ground. The line of kings was broken.

But the pure faith of Abraham endured. It had always been directed to the future anyway. The faith and hope of the Israelite lived on, through the war-torn centuries that followed the exile, when the Jews found themselves back in the Holy Land, but nonetheless oppressed by one pagan empire after another.

The living guardians of the faith of Abraham were the Pharisees. Their teaching and example protected their disciples from the worldliness and cynicism of the pagans. The post-exilic Jewish monarchy could lay no real claim to the inheritance of King David, and the priestly class just went through the motions. In other words, the traditional institutions of the Chosen People had been completely corrupted by outside influences.

But the Pharisees guarded the separateness of the chosen nation. “Pharisee” means ‘separate from the heathen.’ They taught Jews how to keep their homes and towns quiet, hidden enclaves of pure faith.

Except when they didn’t. Except when they took their place right alongside all the other sons of Adam. Except when they, too, fell prey to vanity and greed. Except when their ‘pure’ observances covered over their selfishness and meanness.

Christ reserved his harsh words for the ones who came within millimeters of the truth, but missed it. He expressed nothing but patient compassion for humble sinners who knew perfectly well that they fell far from the mark. But the ones who got close enough to being right that they forgot that God is God and we are not? That’s how you make the Son of God mad.

Abraham rejoiced to look forward to the day of Christ. Abraham believed in the fulfillment to come. The Pharisees guarded the faith of Abraham so ferociously that, when the Messiah came, they tried to lock Him outside the house.