Pharisees: Do you really know them?
I would suspect that if we were asked to describe what a Pharisee was, we would not be terribly accurate. Because more than likely, we’ve gotten a little bit of an notion here or a little bit of an idea there, but we really probably don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the Pharisees.
Like so many things in life, Pharisees were complex people. What it meant to be a Pharisee was complex. We see the dangers of making things simple in our society. For example, just think about the challenges that many have tried to bring peace in the Middle East. I would suggest that some of the reason, most of the reason, maybe even all the reason, is that we’re quite simplistic about the struggle. We tend to pick one side or the other and say we know what we need to know.
Such is the case with the Pharisees. First of all, let’s be clear, some very wonderful people were Pharisees. St. Paul probably most notably, he tells us in his letters that he is a Pharisee. There are some scholars who would suggest that Jesus was a Pharisee because he is quite harsh to them, because I think he suspects that they’ve lost their way.
On my website, I’ll have a lot more to say about Pharisees, their histories, and who they are. That’s thefriar.org. It’s in the bulletin. It’s in my introduction over the course of this week. Normally I’ll do that before the readings, but in moving I didn’t get a chance to do that.
But let me say what’s important here. The Pharisees arose at a time where the faith was not terribly well-practiced among the Jewish people. Moreover, there were developments in Jewish faith that moved the people away from a lack of belief in an afterlife. We see that among the Sadducees, probably the most notable proponents that there was no afterlife. And to a belief in a spiritual realm to the world as well as a spiritual world.
The idea was that by separating themselves to some degree from the society in which they viewed corruption, difficulty, and immoral living, they could much more clearly adopt the practices of the law that would bring them closer to the God who extended the covenant. All that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But what we encounter in the Gospel, and when we see the Pharisees in the Gospel, and I would say by extension when we see like let’s say in the Gospel of John references to the Jews, we’re really not referencing the Jews as in the entire people who followed the law of the covenant, but the Pharisees. They were the ones.
Now, why did they get themselves in trouble? Probably originally for a good reason. The Romans occupied Israel. The goal of the people was to be able to determine their own way of life by being free, by having political opportunities to be a nation. In order to be able to continue to practice their religion, the Pharisees entered into a relationship with the Romans.
And the ones who kind of oversaw the fidelity of the political relationship which they entered into, again, not all bad because no other people was allowed to practice their faith except the Jews and those who agreed to worship the emperor, which many Christians died for refusing to do.
But what happened? With this came privilege. With this came prestige. With this came a different level of life for these Pharisees, and it went to their heads. That’s what Jesus is always then acting about. And what he’s primarily focusing on is the motivation for what they do.
Now I would further suggest that if I were to ask you to define a phylactery, you probably wouldn’t know what it is, but it’s actually very common among Orthodox Jews, particularly Hasidic Jews that are probably the most Orthodox. Namely, it was the primary commandment of the law, the Shema (Deut. 6:4), Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is Lord alone, him you shall serve with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Okay, greatest commandment.
They would put that in a little container and either put it on their wrist or wrap it around their forehead as a reminder that this was what their life was about, a belief in one God. But they decided it would be better if people knew about this, and so they got bigger and wider and more prominent because they wanted to be seen as those who were faithful.
The tassels they wore on their cloak, the tassel, in fact, the woman who was suffering from hemorrhages wanted to grab at the Jesus, which is one piece why some scholars would say he was a Pharisee, was to represent the commandments, the entire law. But they weren’t so that other people could be impressed with them. That was not their purpose.
It was so that the person who wore these things and had these things would be reminded of their obligation to witness, to witness to the power of God. And then, of course, we get that nasty little addition. We got the first greatest commandment. That probably seems easy to us, at least because it’s God and loving God and so forth.
But the second one is the challenge, isn’t it? Love your neighbor as yourself. Now it’s easy to love those we love. Even Jesus says in the Gospel, that’s easy. What about those people we don’t know? What about those people we don’t like? What about those people who really get under our nerves?
Now since I’ve just arrived, I’m going to make a work reference, and since I’ve just arrived, you know, I’m not referring to anybody that works here at St. Albert the Great because I haven’t met them all. I mean, I don’t know them, right? They haven’t had time to annoy me yet, and I haven’t had time, quite frankly, I haven’t had time, which is probably more likely, to annoy them yet.
But there are people, right, that sometimes we have to work with. Maybe it’s a neighbor. Maybe it’s someone else that really gets under our skin. And gosh darn it, Jesus doesn’t give an exception. He doesn’t say you don’t have to love those who annoy you. And even farther goes Jesus along the journey.
We don’t get an exception of loving neighbor, even if the neighbor sins. You’d think that would be kind of a free pass, right? Like if they’re sinning, if they’re doing something evil, if they’re doing something wrong, then in fact I should not have to love them. It’s kind of like, okay, you do your part, I’ll do mine.
But that’s not the way it works. Jesus is getting out with the Pharisees as spiritual leaders of the people, is that they have to be helpful. Life is hard. These two commandments I mentioned, they’re hard. They’re not easy. People’s lives are not hard.
We can look around, even if we were to leave all of the brokenness that is part of the international world, we probably all have brokenness in our own individual lives too. Now brokenness isn’t always sin, it’s brokenness.
But sometimes we have difficult relationships in our lives with people we love and care about. Sometimes we’ve had relationships that came to an end when we didn’t want them to do so. Sometimes we see people that we care about and we love get sick and have some type of disease that makes them suffer greatly and it’s hard.
My father died of dementia, that was a really difficult way to accompany him in his life. Many of you probably have similar difficult things. See, and that’s the most important thing I think for a spiritual leader to remember. Yes, we need to hold the bar high. We need to be challenged.
But we also need people to help us to understand, whether it is me, let’s say, as the one who celebrates Mass here, or you as one who witnesses to the faith, we need to understand that life is hard, that life is difficult, that life is challenging. And more than anything else, we need to love God and to love our neighbor.
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