Pharisees are alive and well, living among us


Isn’t it odd that the people with whom Jesus had the most consistent trouble were the Pharisees? It was not the publicans, Jews who collected the taxes for the hated Romans. Nor was it Pontius Pilate and his legions from Rome, with their unwelcome dominance for generations since General Pompey’s conquest. Nor was it the masses whom the high priest Caiaphas scorned as the rabble who did not know the Law: prostitutes, chiselers like Zaccheus, or criminals like Barabbas. Nor was it the well-to-do Sadducees, who denied bodily resurrection and angels and spirits.

No, it was the Pharisees, a religious subset within Judaism known and sometimes respected for their above-average observance of Moses’ law. Deuteronomy (6, 7f) had Moses urging Israelites “Drill [these words] into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead.” Pharisees did this literally. They wore little wooden boxes containing scrolls of these texts on their foreheads, attached with leather straps. It was to keep God’s word close to their minds. It was not to do outward observance while forgetting about God’s word, especially if the practice gained the wearer admiration. Remember the parable about the Pharisee and the publican?

We Christians do not wear phylacteries. We do not place tilted mezuzahs outside our doors, as do observant Jews today. But we do have many comparable devotions that publicly identify us as Christians. Think of the athletes who are criticized for a prayer moment at the foul line or after a touchdown. There can be good and bad reasons for using them in public: pride in one’s faith or genuine prayer, or else hypocrisy, the fraud of Pharisaism.

It is not only duplicitous office seekers who misuse signs of religious practice to get ahead. We clergy face the temptations. We know the psychology at work, getting approval and benefits earned by better colleagues who have distinguished themselves in real service to people. We can slip into the thinking that the uniform of Roman collar and chasuble identify us with a large group of contemporaries and predecessors who have been good examples, perhaps freeing us of the need to do the same kind of good work. Riding the coat tails of another frees me to enjoy the respect of the cloth without earning it.

You may think that Pope Francis, with his exemplary life of papal poverty, living now for two years in a hotel suite, calling for a poor church of the poor, likening the church to a field hospital rather than a baroque museum, is universally popular. Some resent him. They charge him with neglecting the grandeur of his office, saying he is undignified, lessening that office in the eyes of non-Catholics. Their view of the church is after the model of European monarchies. This became a dominant view of the church once it had lost the Papal States in 1870, condensing its real estate from thousands of square miles in central and northern Italy to 108.7 acres in Rome, plus another 60 scattered throughout the city where the three major basilicas other than St. Peter’s are. Vatican Hill is the burial place of St. Peter, buried in the cemetery near where he was martyred in a public circus. Pope Pius IX felt constrained to call himself the “prisoner of the Vatican,” so great was his feeling of humiliation.

The Gospel of Ash Wednesday quotes the Lord as urging us to avoid shows of piety, especially empty ones based on a hope of adulation. “When you give alms, for example, do not blow a horn before you in synagogues and streets like hypocrites looking for applause. You can be sure of this much, they are already repaid. In giving alms you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6, 2f). The church and its clerical calling were not meant to be stepping stones to promotion or advantage, if only because the Lord died a death of public disgrace, suffering the capital punishment reserved for major criminals. So great was that disgrace that it made it hard to convert new Christians in the first century.

Since these things are so, the Second Amendment must be repealed.