Today there exists a certain sensitivity about bringing into sharp focus the behaviour and attitudes of the Pharisees. Since inter-faith dialogue has made such great strides, there is a feeling that we should not be too critical of these religious leaders. This is true, of course, but it could also be said that no one was more critical of the Pharisees than Jesus himself. It is next to impossible to read the Gospels without encountering the tension between them and the Lord. Perhaps we will strike a balance if we remember two things: first, that Jesus loved the Pharisees and, second, that there is something of the Pharisee in us all.
So, having got that off our chest, back to Jesus’ encounter with a Pharisee over a meal. Jesus was not the easiest of dinner guests, it has to be said. The Pharisee was a little indignant, to say the least, that Jesus had ignored the ritual washing before the meal. What isn’t always appreciated is that the Pharisees had gone well beyond the law regarding ritual cleansing. The only Scripture in the Torah on this subject is Deuteronomy 8:10, but the emphasis here is on giving thanks and praising God for the blessing of food – no mention is made of ritual cleansing. The Talmud, a raft of rules and regulations introduced by the Pharisees over time, created a religion whose intention was to glorify God but became side-tracked by legalism and rules made by men.
Jesus’ challenge of the Pharisees speaks to us today because Christianity is fundamentally a religion, a faith, of the heart. We fast to give glory to God, not to draw attention to ourselves or our own righteousness. We go to Mass because we want to give praise and thanks to God, not because it is simply an obligation. We give to charity, not because we have to but because we want to express our preferential love for the poor. Make no mistake: Jesus loved the Pharisees and Jesus loves us, and the Holy Spirit is constantly at work within us to cleanse our hearts, set us free from legalism, and soften our hearts, creating in us pure and grateful hearts.
Lord, I repent for the ways I sin against your goodness and rely more on my own righteousness than the righteousness of Christ – not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your name give the glory.
Romans 1:16-25 • Psalm 18(19):2-5