A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Pharisees – Good Lessons in a Bad Way

by Maria Kennedy

I have a soft spot for the Pharisees of the New Testament, because in any good story you have to have a good baddie. Good versus evil, the rebel star fighters versus the death star, the knight in shining armour on the white horse versus the knight in shining armour on the black horse. So here we have Jesus versus the Pharisees. What a contrast, a challenge, and the making of a great story in the Gospels.

Jesus, God made man, with the truth on how mankind can attain happiness and have it to the full, versus the Pharisees, who represent the human race and everything in us that is self-serving and diminished. The Pharisees provide a light that has stood the test of time, and I am thankful

The Pharisees
Good Lessons in a Bad Waychallenged by the Pharisees - window in the Anglican Cathedral, Dunedin.
Cf. Luke 6:1-5, see enlargement below

for that. It’s about how easily we can fall into a groove of petty selfishness, me first. Jesus calls us to that daily challenge to work more the other way, the unselfish way, of loving others as ourselves. Is that all?!

Yes, Jesus didn’t just want a small change in the Pharisees, he wanted a radical change. For myself, being a creature of home comforts and routines, I can appreciate the Pharisees’ initial resistance. Further, the Pharisees had themselves on high pedestals, and they would have had a difficult time coping with Jesus’ 'strange' example, such as eating with sinners and tax collectors, thanking widows for poor donations and living without any material possessions.

It is almost comical in the New Testament reading about how much they sputtered over what Jesus had to say, especially when Jesus forgave sins, because now they had a way of dealing with him. He thinks he is the Son of God! He blasphemes! In the meantime they had him watched. They tried to catch him out with silly questions. How did Jesus eat anything when they invited Him to dinner? In such a situation I wouldn’t have had an appetite. But Jesus went along to spend time with them, to eat with them, and he did not seem too upset about it. He went so far as to goad them to their faces. “You clean the outside of cup and plate, while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness. Fools!” Luke 11:39-40. And you can imagine what they were like after Jesus left, sputtering all the more!

As much as I have a soft spot for the Pharisees, because they were truly and honestly that part of ourselves we know is there, our anger, our you-versus-them mentality, our desire to climb that heap of humanity and come out top dog (evolution in action), and our being prepared to cut corners to get there, to step over someone and not care about them, or to hold others back from opportunities, yes as much as that, I am also amazed by Jesus’ response, appallingly honest. He wanted our survival mechanisms under control.

For a start, Jesus was quite gentle. He went to dinner and tried to talk honestly to them. They were the leaders of the Jews, they needed winning over, and they viewed Jesus with distrust. In Luke 7, when Jesus visited the Pharisee Simon, Jesus ignored Simon’s bad manners and failure to give Him a proper welcome, until Jesus defended the woman who gate-crashed the occasion. He praised the woman for her welcome, for her love, and then in front of the Pharisee Simon, Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” He didn’t take the woman outside to say those words. No, he honoured Simon with the truth, and laid it before him, as in a simple flow chart - to be able to forgive sins implies either I really can forgive sins, and therefore I am God, or I can’t forgive sins, and I am an imposter. Jesus certainly gave Simon something to think about.

At other times, Jesus spoke harshly to the Pharisees, as in Matthew 23:24: “You blind guides, straining out gnats and swallowing camels.” Both gnats and camels were considered unclean to the Pharisees. The gnat was the smallest and the camel the largest creature in their locality. The Pharisees made a habit of straining their wine so as to keep their wine clean of gnats and anything else that might make the wine unclean. But, in other ways, they ignored the heart of God such as caring for their parents, bringing their people closer to God and creating laws infused with justice. Hence the Pharisees avoided gnats in their wine but swallowed the unclean camel in more important matters.

Yes, the Pharisees had to suck it up when Jesus was around. Jesus did not mince his words and the Pharisees were left in no doubt whatsoever. Hypocrites! Blind guides! Whitewashed tombs! Hearts of stone - where is your justice and mercy? With Jesus there was no nature-versus-nurture debate about the state of mind and heart of the Pharisees, apart from a brief reference when Jesus told them they were just like their ancestors. Jesus saw something seriously awry and the consequences of those human failings, and spoke with honest protest.

So, thank you, Pharisees, for the light you gave us in the face of Jesus. I am grateful for that. I am not afraid of you, as I would have been in your time. You had the power and influence to have Jesus arrested, tortured and killed. But now you are dead, and you have become story, and in that story you are the baddie. Without you, we would not see the truth as well as we see it. Jesus did not waste your example. You were great in showing the worst of humankind in the face of God. You also hold up a mirror and we see your potential in ourselves. We share the weakness of your humanity.

Pharisees, you were great baddies, and I wish you God’s eternal compassion and understanding.

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