The Sin of Pharisaism
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (cycle B)

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The Pharisees were a religious group that came into being in the Hebrew religious community in the 2nd century B.C. Their objective was to practice the Mosaic Law, adhering strictly to every minor detail. They were known at the time of Christ as Pharisees, a word derived from the Aramaic word "Preesha", which means "those who separate themselves". They were not of the priestly class, they were laymen, but they enjoyed a kind of clerical status in the sense of being very "learned" in the law.

Jesus was quite hard on the Pharisees, as was John the Baptist. What Christ condemned vehemently was the sin of their hypocrisy. The word "hypocrite" is derived from the Greek hypokrisis, which means "acting on the stage, or pretense". A hypocrite is an actor, that is, one who plays a role. The hypocrite does not know his true self, and so he assumes a role, a pretense. It was their pretentiousness that Christ rebuked the Pharisees for, calling them "whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones". On the outside they looked clean and impressive, observing the details of the law, but on the inside was nothing but the rot of arrogance, envy, and a false life.

The word "Pharisaic" has come to mean precisely this kind of clericalism, if you will. Pharisaism will be with us until the end of time. The reason is that there is a secret desire in the human heart to be "set apart" from others. Human persons wish to be "outstanding" in one way or another. The Pharisee sets himself apart from others in terms of his religious and clerical status. He sees himself as learned, especially in religious matters, and so he does not associate with the lowly, sinners and tax collectors, prostitutes, in short, social odd balls.

The problem, though, is that Christ ate with sinners and tax collectors, and the Pharisees saw this. They were taken aback, because to eat with another, to share a meal, is to enter into a kind of communion with the one with whom you share a meal. For Christ to eat with sinners and tax collectors was to enter into communion with them; it was to become ritually unclean. But Christ is God the Son; he is holiness itself.

And so the basic error of the Pharisees is that they misunderstood the meaning of holiness. The word "sacred" means "to be set apart". One who is holy is set apart, not in terms of social status, or clerical status, but in terms of love, or charity. The one who is holy has extraordinary charity, an exceptional or extraordinary love of God and love of neighbour.

God did not separate Himself, rather He joined a human nature; He descended. He became like one of us. That's how the divine is different. Man, because his heart is proud and full of sin, wishes to ascend, to rise higher than everyone else, to stand above, however subtle that might be. God is different, set apart, in that He descends, humbles himself, takes on human flesh, is born in a stable, and dies on a cross wearing a crown of thorns. He is comfortable in the presence of the lowly, the rejects, especially those who are fully cognisant of their sinfulness.

And those who are genuinely holy are comfortable in the presence of the lowly, the rejects, the odd balls of society. In fact, many of the saints were odd balls themselves. This year is the Year for Priests. St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, was so odd that his brother priests actually petitioned the bishop not to ordain him, because he was seen as an embarrassment in the way he looked and was thought to be unfit for the priesthood; he wasn't academically brilliant, he found learning very difficult, had a very limited knowledge of math, history, and geography, and he failed his entrance exams to the seminary.

The petition that his brother priests sent out accidentally ended up on his desk. He read it, and actually agreed with it, so he signed it. His was the last signature on the petition.

Of course he was widely loved as a priest, and during the last ten years of his life he would spend between 16 to 18 hours a day in the Confessional, and the number of pilgrims who came to see him for direction reached about 20 thousand a year. Pilgrims were moved at his "exquisite politeness", his "great kindness", his graciousness, sweetness and total lack of pretentiousness.

What makes the genuinely holy person so approachable and attractive to others is a demeanour that results from being radically in touch with his own sinfulness. Because he has chosen to engage in the struggle with his interior sinfulness, he knows through experience - from the heart, not merely the head - that he is not even slightly better than the lowliest of sinners. The conviction that he is not even slightly higher than his weakest brother - and the humility that results from it - is seen in his face, in his eyes, and in the way he carries himself.

At the funeral of Terrance Cardinal Cooke of New York you found street bums and taxi drivers, everyone from all walks of life, because he associated with them all, mingled with street people, carried on conversations with them, had an eye to eye relationship with everyone he met. This is rare today.

Archbishop Romero was another great man who was down to earth and could identify with the peasant and spoke to them with great love and intimacy, much to the dismay of his brother bishops. Mother Teresa, of course, had no problems living in the midst of the worst poverty.

It is the overcoming of that need to be set apart that sets the saints apart. But they've overcome that need to be set apart precisely because they chose to engage in the struggle, that basic struggle with their own particular sinfulness. And when you engage in that struggle, then you realize that you are nothing, weak, helpless to succeed, and no better than anyone. Then you can identity with and carry on a comfortable relationship with the most lowly, because you see them as your equal, as another you.

But that is one thing the Pharisee cannot do. He is not comfortable with the odd balls, the social rejects, because he has not and will not engage in the struggle with his own interior sinfulness. It's all about externals, observing the details of the law, having right doctrine, observing all the rubrics correctly. And it is here that they separate themselves from others and enjoy the delirious feeling of not being like them.

This kind of Pharisaism is something we find in all areas, on the left, on the right, among liberals, conservatives, in lay people, in bishops, priests, etc., and we see it in high class snobbery of the wealthy. We see it in the arrogance of the learned professor who writes so as not to be understood except by his academic peers. We find it in the medical profession, and in the corporate world. Wherever there is the refusal to engage in the personal struggle with one's own sinfulness, we find people assuming a role, one that includes dressing in a certain way, speaking in a certain way, holding your head a certain way, associating with a certain class of people, all for the sake of procuring the adulation and admiration of others.

But in this gospel, Christ says that it is not what goes into a man from the outside that makes him unclean, but from within. It is from the heart that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly.

Christ lists the sins of the flesh, beginning with fornication, which refers to sex outside of marriage, adultery or marital infidelity, licentiousness, which refers more generally to self-indulgence with regard to the pleasures of touch.

But not everyone struggles here. And so he names avarice, which is the inordinate love of possessing (the love of money and security), he names deceit, or lying, which includes the general lie of the pretentious who are living out a role. He lists envy, which involves feeling a certain sadness at another's good or at another's excellence, and feeling a secret delight in their misfortunes - all hidden, however, under the opposite facial expressions. He names slander, which involves speaking negatively against the good reputation of another. He names folly, which is acting thoughtlessly, often impulsively, and he names pride, which is the excessive love of one's own excellence and involves the illusion of self-sufficiency.

The breadth of this list is important because what happens is that we are generally not honest with ourselves, and the areas where we do not struggle are the areas we accentuate and see as principally sinful. For example, if we don't struggle with sexual temptation, we tend to see sin primarily in terms of the sexual. That way we feel that sin is out there, in others, not in me. Meanwhile, we might struggle with envy, but we don't see it, because sin is focused on the sexual.

On the other hand, you have those who do struggle with sexual sins, but not avarice or anger, and so they are very liberal when it comes to sexual morality, and sin becomes principally a matter of avarice, or justice.

Christ lists all of them, from the most spiritual sins of arrogance and envy, to the most physical, such as fornication and licentiousness. Our freedom will come only after we decide to engage seriously in this struggle with our own sinfulness, because only then will we come to see the need for the divine mercy, and we will seek it, find it, taste it, and become zealous channels of that mercy wherever we go and to whomever we meet. Amen.