On the Pharisees

photo credit: Marshall Segal * via photopin (license)
And there assembled together unto Him the Pharisees and some of the scribes, coming from Jerusalem. And when they had seen some of His disciples eat bread with common, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews eat not without often washing their hands, holding the tradition of the ancients: And when they come from the market, unless they be washed, they eat not: and many other things there are that have been delivered to them to observe, the washings of cups and of pots, and of brazen vessels, and of beds. And the Pharisees and scribes asked Him: Why do not Thy disciples walk according to the tradition of the ancients, but they eat bread with common hands?But He answering, said to them: Well did Isaias prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and precepts of men. - the Gospel of S. Mark, chapter 7

And that is part of the Gospel, on this twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time. It is a something of a pity that these words are sometimes used to attack the traditions of various communities. The Pharisees and the scribes were observant Jews, and the Pharisees took their religion as seriously as to place upon themselves the burden of levitical purity rituals, that is, rituals that the Law of Moses reserved only for the priestly tribe of the Levites, those who were to administer in the sanctuary. The Pharisees were not all Levites, so this was an added piety, a quest for personal holiness, for the end of the Law of Moses was and is the holiness of the People of God. In so far as the Pharisees succeeded in imposing these burdens upon those not of their company, they may be thought to have had good intentions.

An interesting bit of information about the Pharisees is that they wished to 'build a fence about the Torah,' through a strict application of its many precepts for daily life. We could maybe look at that as an attempt to minimise even the possibility that an observant Jew could transgress the Law. If we compare that with the Catholic doctrine on sin and penitence, where we attempt to avoid not only sin itself but the occasions of sin, by taking ourselves away from the circumstances of sin, we could perhaps understand what the Pharisees were trying to do by enforcing what S. Mark calls the 'tradition of the ancients.'

So what is Christ criticising here using the prophecy of Isaiah? He calls the long-standing traditions what they are, the 'doctrines and the precepts of men.' Clearly, they were not part of the Law of Moses, but accumulated customs. But this is not what He criticises. These traditions were, after all, His also, for He was an observant Jew. Here is where the use of short readings at Mass is a little problematic, when most Christians don't read or hear the Gospels except at Mass. In the context of the whole of the Gospel of Mark, we find a picture of some (not all) of the Pharisees as men who would observe the precepts of the Law to the exclusion of the Christian understanding of Charity. We hear stories of Pharisees condemning hungry men for obtaining food on the Sabbath, when the very act of obtaining that food was considered as work and so not permitted on the Sabbath by the Law. We hear stories of Pharisees watching to see if Christ would heal sick people on the Sabbath, when that act of healing was seen also as work. That suggests a sort of meanness of heart that would have frustrated Him. So, the whole of the Gospel gives us the impression of Pharisaic practice of observance of the Law, to the neglect of Charity, the neglect of Love. Indeed, it is known that the Pharisees would not associate with common people for fear of contamination of their own persons, for they could not guarantee that common people were themselves perfect in their observance of the Law, and so pure. Hence their criticism of Christ for eating with tax-collectors and sinners, when they saw that He was Himself a highly-observant Jew. The Jewish historian Josephus noted that Pharisees also considered themselves to be more religious than the rest of the community and claimed to be able to explain the laws more precisely. Certainly, we see that in Christ's famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (publican) in the Gospel of S. Luke, chapter 18. Here is the Pharisee's prayer from that story:

O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. - Gospel of S. Luke, 18:11

Were all the Pharisees bad people? That is inconclusive. Was their excessive love of the Law of God and for the traditions and customs of the Jewish people that grew around it a fault? Certainly not. Can we generalise and say that all of them did regularly what the Lord condemned in this and other parts of the Gospel? Probably not. In many respects, both Christ and the earlier Christians would have been at one with the Pharisees, who were dominant and seen as a religious authority at the time. The early Church would have drawn significantly from the ranks of the Pharisees, and a few such cases are noted in the New Testament. One of the things we could appreciate about the philosophy of the Pharisees is that they did not believe in Scripture alone, and thought that the 'written law' of the Bible did not stand alone but was to be accompanied by interpretation and adaptation to changing times. The Pharisees saw the Law of God as alive and a continuous revelation to the People throughout the ages. They would not take, for example, the 'eye for an eye' of Scripture literally, realising that it refered to making compensation for losses inflicted. There would have been a lot of common sense in the various traditions that had accumulated from centuries of Jewish observance, traditions which the Pharisees were so eager to implement, traditions which the Church would herself in time inherit.

The prophetic curse of Isaiah and of Christ in the Gospel today remains always, not for a certain people, or a certain party within a community (as the Pharisees were), but for all those for whom religion or acts of charity are superficial, where traditions and customs are performed without reference to the heart of those traditions. The Christian churches also have their core of traditions, customs and law. Every human community requires a system of law and accumulated customs, the absence of which leads to disorder and the abuse of the poor and vulnerable. Law must be observed, tradition respected. The centre of the Law of the Moses, and the Law of Christ and the Church is the love of God and the love of neighbour. S. Paul proudly called himself a Pharisee. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, this holy man could be called a Christian Pharisee. This is what he could say about all of this:

If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil. - the first letter of S. Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 13.