Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
In many languages today the word ‘Pharisee’ is synonymous with ‘hypocrite’. This solid reputation is probably due to the later part of this chapter of Matthew’s gospel: the repeated phrase, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Jesus acknowledged the value of some of what the Pharisees were teaching: “Do whatever they teach you.” What he objected to was the discrepancy between this and their own lives. They had made themselves interpreters of the Law of Moses (“they sit on Moses’ seat”), and were applying it without mercy. This was the reverse of their own stated claim: to be as lenient, or as strict, with others as with themselves. They were imposing the burden of the law on others while they themselves enjoyed precedence and privilege. It is less the sinfulness of sinners than the hypocrisy of the pious that causes people to abandon religion. Atheism is caused mainly by religious hypocrites.
There’s a story about a rabbi who gave money to a drunkard. When criticised for it, he said, “Should I be more particular than God who gave me the money?” An authentic religious person doesn’t judge the sinner but identifies with him, like Jesus queuing up with sinners for John’s baptism of repentance (Mark 1:9). But fake religious people are always judging; they exist on it. They are religious in order to be able to condemn others. They haven't acknowledged their own sinfulness, so they project it onto others; then all their fury is fuelled by a hidden self-hatred. Even when the content of what they are saying is correct, everything they say is vitiated. I once heard an old man say to a group of young priests, “If you don't love people, for God's sake don't preach!” You may be able to express some true opinions, but you will not be able to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). The very truth of what you say will blind you to the underlying hatred. An anonymous 5th-century Christian writer said: “Mistaken laity may be more easily set straight, but clerics, if they are evil, are almost impossible to set straight.” Anyone who presumes to teach is inviting comparison with the historical Pharisees, and is in the direct line of fire.
The Pharisees have long disappeared from history, but the Church has us reading about them frequently in the Liturgy. Why? Because we haven't gone away, you know!
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