Q. Who were the Pharisees and why were they so mean to Jesus in the Gospels? (Green Bay)
A. We often hear about the Pharisees in the Gospels. They are usually depicted as enemies of Jesus and examples of religious hypocrisy (Lk 11 37-54). To call someone “a Pharisee” even today brands them as an individual only interested in the law of religion and external show and not in a person’s heart. Who were the Pharisees, where did they err and what can we learn from them as Christians?
The Pharisees were a religious faction within Judaism made up of mostly laity — not priests. They struggled with the very same question we as Christians struggle with today: “How do we live our faith in a culture that presents a sometimes hostile environment for living out faith?” Many devout Jews of Jesus’ time experienced the daily challenge of living their faith in a society, place and time where they were surrounded by non-Jews (Gentiles). Some were determined to separate themselves in order to remain ritually pure and keep God’s Law.
This was the origin of the Pharisees. The word literally means “separated ones.” Over time, they added laws on top of existing laws to try to maintain the purity of Judaism. What started out as a group of individual Jews striving to follow God’s law soon turned into a party intent on enforcing their form of religious purity. Anything which appeared ritually impure or non-Jewish became suspect. Despite this, the Pharisees remained popular since they were perceived by many as being against the Roman occupation of the Holy Land.
As we see from Jesus’ Gospel teachings, much of what he said challenged the Pharisees. Jesus inaugurated the new covenant of God’s love, he stated that he and the Father were one, he urged his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike, and said that all are invited to the Lamb’s wedding feast in heaven. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was not against their religious fervor, but their narrow view of salvation and the law.
Now, not all Pharisees were antagonists of Jesus. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, was earnestly seeking God’s will. Many Pharisees meant well in their desire to keep God’s commandments. Where they became blind was in their neglect of the spirit behind God’s law. Many failed to recognize that God gave the law to his people simply because he loved them! And that God’s law is meant to keep us safe from harm and help us on the way to salvation.
Perhaps the same challenge remains for us today as we strive to live our Catholic faith and grow in holiness as disciples of Jesus. Before we label someone a religious “Pharisee,” it would be better to discover and learn from the religious truth that he or she may want to protect. That person might challenge us or make us uncomfortable, but what is the truth they desire to preserve? Additionally, we, ourselves should be careful that, in our enthusiasm and zeal for our faith, we do not forget that Jesus came to save all people. Jesus is everybody’s Savior — and ours too.
Fr. Girotti is Vicar for Canonical Services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.
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