Friday, October 15, 2010

Who is the Pharisee?

Not long ago, someone used the term Pharisee in my combox.  This term, or its adjective 'Pharisaical' get tossed around quite a bit in the Catholic world.

Its been tossed in my general direction more than once.  I would like to examine what this term seemed to mean when Jesus used it and what it has come to mean today.

In the Gospel of Matthew we hear the term a few times.  It ranks right up there with 'hypocrite' in Jesus' Good Book!  Not a term of endearment then, it is not a term of endearment now, either.

If we are going to toss, or have tossed at us, a term, I think we should know what it means.

The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that arose during the 2nd century BC.  They were not the 'ruling' sect but were known to be keepers of the Law (Torah).  They believed in life after death.  They called to faithfulness to The Law even in the face of potential martyrdom.  They believed in the oral tradition of the Torah, as opposed to the literal view of the Torah held by the Sadducees.  They tried to impose the purity rituals outside of the Temple. They may have had a great effect on the building of the Second Temple.

The Pharisees were the most popular sect among the general Jewish population and we would see their practices today as the most democratic.  We can also see how their beliefs echo in Christianity.  They believed in the resurrection of the dead.  They believed in free will, but they also believed that God knew what would ultimately happen.  They believed that all adults should follow the Law, not just the order to create a holy nation.

Some Pharisees were certainly stricter with regard to following the Law than were others.  In a Jewish document called the Talmud, seven types of Pharisee are described.  Only one of the seven types can easily be seen in a favourable light.  It would seem that Pharisees knew they were not perfect and were not always loving toward God.

I find it interesting to note that after the destruction of the Second Temple, of all the sects that were in the Temple only the Pharisees emerged in any recognizable form.  They are considered by many to be the precursors to Rabbinic Judaism, which is the most common form today.

So what was it about the Pharisees that Jesus was criticizing so harshly?  They are referred to, in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 15 gives us a good look) as a 'brood of vipers', a white-washed sepulchre and other un-kind terms.

There seem to be a couple of things going on here.  Jesus seemed pretty clear that he did not like those who were so intent on the Law that they ended up violating God's other laws (Matthew 15:4-5).  In Matthew 16, the Pharisees got it again when Jesus pointed out that they weren't watching the signs.  According to the notes in the New American Bible (NAB), Jesus was indicating that the Pharisees could not see the coming of the new Kingdom.

Later in the same chapter, the disciples are told to reject the leaven of the Pharisees.  Again from the NAB, leaven is seen to mean teaching.  By telling his disciples to reject the teachings of the Pharisees, He is paving the way for the new, messianic Kingdom.

In Matthew 23: 24, we get the gnat/camel reference.  Jesus is telling them that they are ignoring larger laws by getting hung up on little ones. In verses 25-26 the Pharisees are being called to task for showy, outward displays of piety that have little actual devotion behind them.

It goes on...

In my experience, the invective "Pharisee" is usually lobbed by someone who has a problem with a particular teaching of Catholicism, or perhaps has a problem with her authority generally.

Liturgy is a fine example.  Catholic liturgy, particularly the Mass, has a structure to it.  In the Roman Missal are found the rubrics for the Mass.  In the simplist form, a priest is to "Say the black and do the red", black being the spoken parts of the Mass, the red being the actions of the Mass.

People trying to improve liturgical standards (ie. 'follow the rules') are seen as unbending, uncharitable etc.  Sometimes we probably are, and for THAT we can be chastised.  But should we be chastised for following the rules given to us?

In the case of liturgy, I think this is not a valid chastisement.  The Mass is something we share we all participants throughout the world and throughout Christian history.  It is all the same Mass.  In a sense, the Mass is a window to Heaven.  When one, cleric or lay-person enforces changes of his or her own authority, it is as if they get fingerprints on that window to heaven, and cloud the view.  Liturgical law is there to keep that window clear.  We owe it to all mass-goers through time and history.

In the case of someone who seeks to follow non-liturgical Church law, a similar principal applies.  If something being adhered to is a valid Church law (doctrine, dogma...) we are supposed to do our best to adhere to it.  If we do that with pride and showiness, then certainly the pride is to be chastised.  If someone is merely going through the motions to make him or herself appear good, well that is a sin as well.  Calling someone a Pharisee simply because they insist on following the law is making a judgement call on their motives and the state of the soul...and we are NOT supposed to judge that.

The problem is not adherence to the law. Jesus tells us to follow the commandments, to do as he tells us.  Given the the Church is the Body of Christ with Christ as its head, then we are to follow the Church as well.

And those rule-following Pharisees were the ones who survived the destruction of the Temple.  A sort of Jewish 'remnant'.  Hmmm.

I know there are many different references that could be called upon here with regard to obedience, tradition and law and this post could keep me busy for days.  For now, I will end with this:

We must all be mindful of our tendency to sin, including that always sneaky sin of Pride.  Given what I've just learned of Pharisees though, I'd say that they were not necessarily a whole lot worse than the rest of us.  They had a lot of good going for them that is not mentioned in Scripture.  They were however a visible representation in Jesus' time of the Jewish status quo, and I think maybe that's why they were held up as an example of what not to do.


Anonymous said...

I love your article on the term pharisee. Quite informative. Thank you.. Perhaps you would enjoy an article written towards Protestants who put down Catholic Ritual, entitled, "Catholic Ritual Defended". It is here,, just click on books and articles and you'll find it there. I would love to hear what you think about it.

Thanks, Paula

JP said...

I didn't read the whole item you recommended, but I did agree with the scriptural evidence I saw for ritual practice.

I do caution that the writer of that article appears to be sede vacantis (think I spelled that correctly), that is he believes that we do not have a valid Pope.

I do not at all agree with that sentiment!