The Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels. They played a significant role in the public life of Jesus. What we know of them leads us to have a very negative opinion of them. We see them as legalistic hypocrites, blind to Jesus and his message. We see them becoming increasingly hostile to Jesus, and eventually seeking to destroy him. They are often presented as questioning Jesus, trying to provoke a response that will discredit him.
Specifically, in today’s Gospel, the Pharisees propose a dilemma designed to get Jesus into trouble, no matter which alternative he chooses. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would be in trouble with the Jewish people. If he said the tax should not be paid, he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities. As he often did, Jesus responded with a question. In doing so, he escaped the dilemma and raised the issue to a new level.
Although he was often in conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus recognized their role as teachers in Israel. He told people, “Do as they say; not as they do!” The Jewish people were people of the law as handed down by Moses. The Pharisees were the interpreters and guardians of the law. In fact, it was to their credit that they were the ones largely responsible for sustaining fidelity to the Law of Moses in Israel.
Jesus was sharply critical of the religion of the Pharisees. They often turned life-giving principles into regulations that suffocated and condemned. Over time, the great principles of the Law were broken down into literally thousands of rules and regulations. The Pharisees believed salvation was attained through scrupulous observance of those rules and regulations.
The Pharisees thought they knew exactly what God wanted of them. When Jesus told them they didn’t have it right, they simply refused to believe him. In fact, they turned strongly against him and his message. The Pharisees were dedicated legalists. For them, religion consisted in careful observance of every detail of the Law. At the same time, they were deeply religious in the sense of being desperately earnest about the practice of religion; but religion as they understood it.
There is a danger in being a legalist in our faith. The danger is as obvious as the Pharisees. There is a trap because some see themselves as so perfect in the following of our Church’s teachings that they forget that the words of Jesus Christ were directed at living a Christ centered life. I have seen this so many times in my ministry that I could weep. The overly pious Catholic, the sanctimonious Catholic, the Catholic that struts about their faith but when the rubber hits the road, there is little that shows in their living of a Christ centered life.
Much of the behavior of the Pharisees was self-serving. Deeds were performed to be seen and admired. Reflection on their behavior has resulted in the term “Pharisee” becoming a synonym for “hypocrite.” The problem of the Pharisees was not so much a lack of faith, as a lack of humility, humility that would allow them to admit they could be wrong. They had lost the capacity for self-criticism. Lack of humility is often accompanied by stubbornness. Thus, the Pharisees became fixed in their opposition to Jesus, which then became stronger and stronger.
Having said all that about the Pharisees, I still like to think of them as affording us a good example in a negative way. We must be careful not to out-Pharisee the Pharisees, i.e., not to think of ourselves as incapable of making the same mistakes they did. We can learn from them not to think we understand so perfectly what God wants of us that we never have to make any adjustment in our thinking. To put it a bit differently, the valuable lesson we can learn from the Pharisees is that they needed to change their minds, to be converted. There is a sense in which we, too, need to be converted, i.e., converted in the sense of being continuously in a process of turning away from sin, and turning to the Lord.
From time to time, the Gospels describe Jesus as challenging the Pharisees in very strong language. It helps to remember Jesus also found it necessary to challenge his close followers. We can find 17 places in the Gospels when Jesus asked his disciples: “Are you still without understanding?” It is not that the disciples were dull or of low intelligence. The real challenge for Jesus is not one of a lack of intelligence among his disciples, but for them to be willing to give up an old vision, and accept a new one. The challenge Jesus presents to anyone who wants to be his follower is not so much a matter of understanding, as a matter of radical faith, and profound trust in Jesus as Son of God, and our Savior.
I think that applies to all of us in the faith community of San Juan Bautista. It’s not a question of how often we look the part of the perfect Catholic Christian. It really is a question of how often we stand in the footsteps of Jesus. As my children were growing and there were arguments, I would ask : “ What would you do if Jesus were standing here?” We need to ask ourselves the same question every day. Do the thoughts of our minds, the words from our lips, the actions from our hands honor and imitate Jesus Christ. If the answer is “no,” then we know that we are more like a Pharisee than a follower of Christ. Pray God that each of us has the wisdom, the maturity and the true spirit to be an imitator of Christ.