Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Avoiding the Error of the Pharisees

In my opinion, the Pharisees are important to consider in this day and age in the Church. I don’t say that to use the group as an epithet, nor to use an ad hominem to target bloggers I disagree with. I think we need to consider them because they did have an attitude towards religion that seemed right from a human perspective, but ultimately that attitude fell short in the eyes of God.

Briefly, the view of the Pharisee was (seeking to avoid pejorative terms) that one was faithful to God by keeping His laws. In doing so, they offered their interpretation of how the Law was best followed. People who did not follow that interpretation were considered sinners. In contrast, because they followed the Law in accordance with their interpretation, they believed they were holy. It strikes me as being an “either-or” fallacy. Either one followed their interpretation of the Law and were holy, or they did not follow their interpretation of the Law, and were corrupted. The problem is, the either-or fallacy overlooks the possibility of there being more than two options—in this case, the fact that it was not enough to follow the observance of the Law. Jesus did not fault the Pharisees for keeping the Law. He faulted them for failing to love God and neighbor while keeping the law (Matthew 23:23).

The historic Pharisees were, of course, something that emerged from Jewish culture. But we should not think that the attitude of the Pharisee is limited to Judaism. it seems to me that the mindset which motivated the Pharisee can exist in Christianity in general. This includes existing in the Catholic faith. The either-or fallacy can be found among members of the faith as well. As Catholics, we believe that if we would love God, we must keep His commandments (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21, 1 John 5:2-3). However, a Catholic who only kept the commandments and did not love His brother, would be just as in the wrong (see 1 John 4:20-21) as the individual who thought one could ignore God’s commands so long as they showed love for the unfortunate. The Catholic teaching recognizes that we must both act rightly and love rightly.

The historical Pharisees were right in recognizing that some actions done against the Law were sins. Likewise, the Pharisee mindset in the Church rightly recognizes that if people refuse to follow the moral teachings of the Church, they do wrong. Where this mindset goes wrong is in assuming that since they do not behave that way, they stand before God holy and righteous. But Jesus called the Pharisees “Whitewashed tombs,” (Mathew 23:27) because their internal attitudes were wrong, regardless of how rigorously they kept the law.

Today, I see the Pharisee mindset most flagrantly in the opposition to Pope Francis. This opposition stems from an interpretation from a certain group of Catholics on how one is to be faithfully Catholic. This interpretation includes an implied mindset of thinking that sinners should be cast off from the Church. Yet the Pope makes an effort to reach out to these people where they are. Whether it is the washing the feet of a Muslim girl in a youth prison on Holy Thursday, whether it is praising a single mother for choosing life, or dialoging with atheists and non-believers, or reaching out to the divorced and remarried and the person with same-sex attraction, he is reaching out to the sinners and calling them to the love of God. As he said in a September, 2013 interview:

“I see clearly, that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.

What he does is laudable. But some people look at this approach, and challenge his supporters with words very similar to the words the Pharisees addressed to the Apostles, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11). The Pharisees were scandalized with Our Lord. Today, many are scandalized with Pope Francis, even though he is not doing anything contrary to the Church teaching—only contrary to a personal (and non-authoritative) interpretation of the Church teaching.

So, how do we avoid the error of the Pharisees? It is imperative that we do avoid it, because Our Lord saw fit to condemn it. We must avoid it by changing our attitudes:

  • We must stop thinking that our keeping the commandments is enough before God.
  • We must stop thinking that those who failed to keep the commandments are to be cast away.

Or, as Jesus said:

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them [a scholar of the law]* tested him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

If we forget this, we are not keeping His commandments—a requirement of loving Him. Each individual will have to look into their own heart, knowing God is their judge, and ask whether they have fallen into the error of the Pharisee, thinking only about keeping the commandments and lacking the love that goes with it. It is an easy thing to do today with such hostility towards the Church and some Catholics flagrantly defying the Church teaching and seeming to get away with it.

Yes, we need to speak out against sin—but not in the mindset of “The Church needs to put those bastards in their place!” It needs to be done out of love, with concern for the fate of the individual who falls into sin. We need to love the person with same sex attraction, the woman who has an abortion and the Catholic politician who flagrantly votes against Catholic teaching, and our approach to their sins should be one of bringing them back to God and reconciled with His Church. Otherwise, we may have to face the final judgment with the reality of “the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:1b)

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