When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem
gathered around Jesus,
they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals
with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
—For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews,
do not eat without carefully washing their hands,
keeping the tradition of the elders.
And on coming from the marketplace
they do not eat without purifying themselves.
And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed,
the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. —
So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him,
“Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders
but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
After the Gospel:
The Pharisees must have been a tough bunch.
98 references to Pharisees in the Bible, most of them confrontations with Jesus.
What was the problem with the Pharisees anyway?
Where did Jesus think they went wrong?
Jesus Himself answers that, as He tells us what He wants our religion to be, warns us to avoid the traps they fell into.
The Pharisees emerged in the turbulent centuries before Christ, when the Jewish way of life was struggling to survive,
threatened from outside by Greek culture with its widespread immorality, unclean food, idols of silver and gold,
threatened from within by a bought-and-sold priesthood.
A group of pious laymen began sounding the alarm that only if the Jewish people would turn back to God and obey the Torah down to the smallest details, then and only then would God bless them as a nation once again. Only separation from everything that was not Jewish would save the people and their faith.
Common folk called them “the separated ones,” the Pharisees,
“the pious ones” who wanted to restore the old ways, and resist any modernization.
Their education and training made them the primary Bible teachers in each village.
They were the best Judaism had to offer at the time.
So far so good.
Eventually they began to see sin everywhere, and they became so obsessed with externals that they missed the point, ultimately, missed God Himself.
Most religions are based on ritual and ceremony, but they multiplied purifications, tithings, etc. into obligations covering almost every aspect of daily life.
Their man-made ceremonies could be seen,
made them look acceptable, outwardly virtuous …
the more rituals they performed, the more virtuous they seemed.
Externals ended up becoming virtues.
“They purified themselves,” our gospel says.
For instance: next to the bed, a basin and a pitcher of water.
Before getting out of bed, they washed their hands to cleanse them from any impurity of the night… first the right hand, then the left hand, then both hands; finally it was OK to get out of bed.
“You blind fools!” Jesus said. “You cleanse the outside of the cup, but inside it is full of lust and greed! First cleanse the inside that the outside also may be clean.” Cf Matt 23:25
He knew that inside the heart, that’s where unchastity and greed, envy and hatred, grow secretly in the dark.
Jesus often accused them of elevating their human traditions to the status of Law,
and missing the most important parts of God’s Law – especially love of neighbor.
They were not known for being generous, merciful or just,
as taught by our Responsorial Psalm:
‘Those who do justice …
who slander not with their tongue,
do no harm to their fellow man,
take no reproach against their neighbor,
take no bribe against the innocent …
They will live in the presence of the Lord.’
“Woe to you, hypocrites!” Jesus said. “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, yet omit the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith; these you should have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, you strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” Matt 23:23-24
They also had an impediment to practicing what St James called “pure and undefiled religion” because as St Luke bluntly says: “The Pharisees loved money.”
How could they provide for orphans and widows in their need?
Because orphans and widows cost money.
So the Pharisees ended up deluding themselves, becoming “holier than thou,”
surrounded by religiosity …
a long list of “shalt-nots”
a long list of observances … SOME righteousness – just not enough.
Jesus actually called them whitewashed tombs,
looking good on the outside, but inside full of rottenness.
Somewhere in their history, the Pharisees became self-appointed policemen,
custodians guarding their man-made traditions,
impatient with those who did not conform.
In today’s gospel, they traveled from Jerusalem to spy on Jesus, ready to act as judge and jury…
They thought they were God’s rule-keepers, but Jesus showed otherwise:
their rule-keeping was hollow, it left the inner person unreformed.
What counts in religion is the heart changing, from evil to God.
Remember the Pharisee who invited Jesus to a dinner…
where a woman came up to Jesus’ feet with an alabaster flask of ointment,
washed his feet with her tears, wiped them with the hair of her head,
kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
The Pharisee was thinking, “This man should know she is a sinner,”
so Jesus volunteered, “Simon, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she has loved much.”
For a Pharisee: Once a sinner, always a sinner.
For Jesus: a heart CAN change, from sin to love.
Sadly, all four evangelists critique the Pharisees.
Chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel, called The Seven Woes, portrays an uncharacteristically angry Jesus, openly critical of their legalism.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You yourselves do not go in, nor do you allow others to enter.” Matthew 23:13
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, outwardly beautiful, but within, full of dead men’s bones. You outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” Cf Matt 23:27-28
Even more ominously, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the crowd not to imitate them:
“Truly I say, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20
Knowing ourselves, we can honestly pray:
“Lord Jesus, help us remove the beam from our own eye,
and turn over to Your care the splinters in the eyes of others.” Amen.