“You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.” (Mk 7,13)
This is a serious accusation Christ made against the Pharisees who always found fault in Christ and in his disciples for not following scrupulously certain human protocols that were considered of absolute value. These words are found in the gospel reading of Tuesday of the 5th Week in Ordinary Time that for this year falls on February 7.
That is why Christ warned his disciples to be wary of what he termed as the “leaven of the Pharisees and the Saducees.” (cfr. Mt 16,12) It refers to teachings that pervert the truth with subtle lies, a phenomenon that is also common these days.
These are teachings that arise from a certain kind of spiritual pride and self-righteousness, and are often expressed in rigid rules and protocols, in a too literal an interpretation of certain laws that contradict the spirit behind those laws, and that often give rise to hypocrisy.
At one point, Christ accused these religious leaders then of being blind guides who “strain out a gnat and yet swallow a camel.” (Mt 23,24) They got punctiliously focused on little details while ignoring the over-all picture of things.
Thus, Christ likened them to white-washed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but are full of bones and unclean things inside. He accused them for being hypocrites that meticulously clean the cup and dish and yet are full of greed and self-indulgence. (cfr. Mt 23, 25-27)
It was because of this reality about the Pharisees that Christ told his disciples: “Practice and obey whatever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they do not practice what they teach.” (Mt 23,3)
Pharisaism, as the dictionary puts it, refers to the doctrines and practices of many of the Pharisees during the time of Christ. They were almost invincibly convinced they were always right, basing that conviction simply on their traditions and their own interpretations of God’s laws.
When Christ finally came, they could not believe he was the Messiah since Christ did not jibe with their expectations as based on their own estimation of things. In fact, they were suspicious of him, always finding fault in him and finally managed to crucify him.
To be sure, not all Pharisees were like that. We can cite the example of Nicodemus who went to see Christ by night to ask for some clarifications and who helped bury Christ’s body. There must have been others like Nicodemus.
And so, we have to refrain from making blanket accusations against all Pharisees. By pharisaism, we simply refer to certain portions of the Pharisees who had the wrong attitude toward Christ and the things of God.
Their error was in their too literal interpretation of the religious and moral laws without due regard to the spirit of the laws. Such interpretation led them unavoidably to fall into hypocrisy, since the reality even of their own lives cannot cope with the very restrictive view of what they considered as right and wrong, good and evil.
It’s unfortunate that the Pharisees of old have their modern version these days. They are usually commentators on religious and Church issues, whose main business seems to be in questioning Church doctrine, unearthing Church scandals and exposing them to the whole world, and not much else.
Of course, it’s good that these issues are aired out not only to inform the people about them but also and more importantly, to help find the proper answer and solutions for them. But that does not seem to be the case.*