Yes, we have to be wary of our tendency to be stricter and holier than God himself. This happened among many of the Pharisees in the gospel who made laws, and interpreted and applied these laws according to their own understanding, without referring them to God. (cfr. Mk 7,1-13)
Of course, in their case, some excuse can be made since they could not believe that Christ was the God who became man precisely to show us “the way, the truth and the life” proper for us.
As a consequence, they became rigid in the application of their laws which, by the way, cannot fully capture what is truly good and proper for us, since we are governed not only by human laws but also by a supernatural law.
Remember Christ asking the Pharisees about the sabbath law: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to destroy?” (Mk 3,4) In another instance, Christ was asked why his disciples not follow the tradition of the elders…” (cfr. Mk 7,5)
To which Christ responded by saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” (Mk 7,6-8)
We have to be wary of this danger which we may call as the new pharisaism that is manifested in many ways—like the tendency to legalism and formalism, developing a legal system that is animated by what is called as legal positivism, etc.
There is also what is called as the pharisaical conscience where grave sins are minimized while matters of little importance are magnified. Such conscience tends to be very judgmental and leads one to assume a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Even in the area of psychology, this tendency is shown in what is called as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where rigidity reigns supreme.
Pharisaism drips with sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness, a funny caricature of authentic holiness. It is an ugly bag of all violations of charity, often disguised as defense of justice and human rights.
It is a collection of false reasons and rationalizations not based on faith, hope and charity. It’s more interested in pursuing one’s self-interest than in a genuine concern for the common good, and much less, in giving glory to God. It thrives in an environment of gossips, rumor-mongering and mob rule.
We have to be most wary of the dangers of pharisaism that can come to us anytime and in very subtle ways. When in our pursuit for truth, justice and beauty, we become judgmental and rigid, less patient, understanding and merciful towards others, we can be sure we are falling into the hands of a new pharisaism.
When in our legitimate pursuit for greater knowledge, power and fame, we do not make the corresponding conversions of heart and are unwilling to suffer for others, this new pharisaism is setting in.
Now that we are in an election campaign season, these manifestations of pharisaism come aplenty. Candidates and their followers are often pictured in black-and-white. They are portrayed either as saints and angels who cannot do any evil, or the devil personified who cannot do any good at all. There is so much mudslinging and bashing, creating a very toxic environment among us.
We need to have God always in our mind and heart to avoid this common danger of pharisaism.*