28 August [St Augustine]
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.' You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, 'Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.' How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.
This passage (and the remainder of chapter 23) has been used by Christians in the past to fuel anti-Jewish polemic. But clearly it is not Judaism itself that Matthew’s gospel had in focus, but those Pharisees who opposed and ultimately destroyed Jesus. Matthew himself was a Jew, as of course were Jesus, his disciples, and his entire family.
The problem with the Pharisees was the absence of an interior spirit to give life to their religious practices. They are a warning headline for all time, because any group in any religion is capable of going their way. They would strain out a gnat (qamla) from their drink, Jesus said, but swallow a camel (gamla). They would give tithes not only of their field grain and fruit crops, but even of the herbs in the back garden; and yet they neglected the really important things: justice, mercy and love. They quibbled with words in order to have things both ways.
The Pharisees interpreted the law so strictly that no one could observe it, not even they themselves. There was certainly no hope of observing it, they felt, if one remained immersed in ordinary living, so they withdrew (the word 'Pharisee' means 'separated'). Of course they came to despise others who were still immersed in worldly affairs. They were constantly scandalised by Jesus's association with tax-collectors and sinners (Mt 9, Mk 2, Lk 5). They were consumed by zeal for the Law rather than zeal for God. Their interpretations were strict to the point of absurdity. We should be thankful to them: they exemplified perfectly a track that religious people are forever in danger of slipping into. They show us that it is quite possible (and easy) to be interested in religion without being interested in God.
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