The Danger of Pharisees

Reflection on the readings for October 31, 2015.

Today’s opening words in the Gospel resonate with a cultural, societal, and human truth.  Here is the text, “Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully.”  Those words, “the people there were observing him carefully,” makes me think that they wanted to know how Jesus was going to handle this Pharisee.  Was he going to put him in his place? Or pat him on the back? 

Today, as I read this passage I was waiting for Jesus to let this guy have it!  That expectation is the truth I’m speaking of, and I think Pope Benedict captured it beautifully when he lifted the excommunication from the Society of Saint Pius X.  These are his words, “At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint” (Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre).  These words and this passage capture a challenge to us as Christians to be counter-cultural.  Both Christ in the Gospel and Pope Francis challenge us to resist this temptation in our society.

I bring all of this up because our treatment of the Pharisees tends to prove Pope Benedict’s point.  The danger of the Pharisees is they are easy to universally hate.  I find that my conscience barely makes a peep when I cast judgements on these men as if I can see into their hearts.  If we are not careful, we can allow their opposition to Jesus to train us to have a scapegoat for our hate.  We should not let this happen!

Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel compels us to not let this happen.  He sat at table with a Pharisee.  One of the most commonly referenced acts of merciful ministry practiced by Jesus was open table fellowship.  He scandalously sat at table with sinners and tax collectors, inviting them to repentance not through accusation, but by reminding them of their worth.  So we would do well to see Christ’s open table fellowship extending to this Pharisee’s table too.

I think Pope Francis gets this too.  This is why within one letter we find him both saying, “For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” and “In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins” (According to Which an Indulgence is Granted to the Faithful on the Occasion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy).  He is reaching out to those who might feel they somehow carry an irremovable title of sinner and those who are so often accused of being Pharisees.

We need to respond to the conviction from Pope Benedict, and follow the example of Pope Francis and, more importantly, Jesus.  We need to recognize that the danger of the Pharisees is not that they are deserving of so much hate. The danger emerges when we make them the unquestionably intolerable ones.  In doing so, we fail to allow God to lift us to the heights which we are called, and instead try to climb there on top of each other.

I think Paul’s closing lines make a lot of sense in this case, “In respect to the Gospel, they are enemies on your account; but in respect to election, they are beloved because of the patriarch.  For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”  There are those who are in opposition to the Gospel and what it stands for, but if that makes them my enemy it makes them one I am commanded to love and pray for.  God has called them into existence and their life is a testament of love, I can’t take that away from them.  We are called to be disciples, to be counter-cultural, and that means avoiding the danger of the Pharisees.

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