Monday, June 15, 2009

Pharisees Among Us

There are Pharisees in our parish. Our pastor allegedly made this declaration to one of his favored parishioners, and I have no reason to doubt that he said it. The parishioner to whom this was said repeated the assertion more than once, adding in a very Seinfeld sort of way, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I suspect that I might be one of the Pharisees that our pastor has in mind.

The Bible tells us that the Pharisees, with a few exceptions, rejected the Messiah, because he didn’t follow all of the rules that they believed God had mandated as being required for righteousness. John the Baptist called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” Jesus called them “whitened sepulchers” because of their rank hypocrisy.

That was the problem with the Pharisees. They were hypocrites, proud of their own external piety, but unaware of the deeper law of love. I should hope that it is fair to say that not all Pharisees were hypocrites, just as Gospel accounts critical of “the Jews” are not to be interpreted as referring to all Jews, but rather just the corrupted leaders.

The entry for “Pharisees” in the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates much that was admirable in the Pharisees. They were excluded from a hereditary priesthood, but they became teachers and rabbis. They are credited with creating the synagogues which the Gospels say that Christ attended. Jesus himself alluded to their authority when he stated that they occupied Moses’ seat.

The Pharisees were very egalitarian in that they believed holiness was for everybody, not just for priests and Levites. The modern-day Pharisee might be a great proponent of the universal call to holiness. However, the Pharisees believed that the essence of holiness was obeying the rules. It didn’t matter why something caused uncleanliness; all ritual uncleanliness was to be avoided. Rules for the Temple were universalized, and the way to maintain cleanliness was to maintain separation from what was unclean.

We have rules as Catholics. On the minimalist end, you might be able to argue that the only real rules that we have are the precepts of the Church—the five or six things that every Catholic is expected to do. On the other hand, you could look at the Code of Canon Law and conclude that we have more rules than the first century Jews did.

The thing is, most of our laws are very restricted and are explicitly not meant to control every aspect of our daily lives. Canon Law simply does not run our lives the way the laws observed by the Pharisees ran theirs. The Church has made it very easy to be Catholic. I say this with full recognition that it was not always so. Just 50 years ago, the rules for Friday abstinence, the Eucharistic fast, and ecumenical prayer were much stricter than they are today.

I’m sure that our pastor is aware of all of these nuances and could recite them and more if asked. I’m also aware, however, that when a Christian calls someone a Pharisee, they don’t mean it as a compliment. The implication is that the target of the epithet is a hypocrite caught up in the externals of religious piety, and they need to get over their own self-importance.

I know that the danger of falling into that mode of religious practice exists, and I try to guard against it. I admit that I sometimes think that I see it in others. Again, it is a fault that I have to guard against. But simply slapping labels on those who want their priest to “say the red and do the black” does nothing to advance a spirit of charity.

There is no dichotomy between loving our neighbors and adhering to things like Canon Law and liturgical norms – rules that have been established and promulgated by the Church. Celebrating mass that way that the Church says it should be celebrated is not an impediment to love. In fact, the rules are there to protect against a disordered love, to ensure that Christ and his sacraments are at the center of our liturgical life, so that we can maintain the proper focus and motivation after we leave the liturgy. The two are actually complementary.

So, are there Pharisees in our parish? Sure. Am I one of them? Sometimes. Anybody who takes their religion seriously is going to tend that way to varying degrees at different times. Are codified rules and norms bad? Definitely not. Is indifference to those same rules bad? I think you know my answer.

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