One of the problems with texts that revile the Pharisees is that they habituate us into thinking that they are the bad guys of the Bible who have nothing to do with us. The truth is, not every Pharisee was the hypocritical monster that Jesus describes in today’s gospel text, and many people who are not and were not Pharisees are and were just like the nasty folks in the reading. The issue has more to do with religious attitude than with specific sectarian membership. Thus, while the ancient Pharisees are long gone, pharisaic attitudes remain.
In the presence of certain religious people, I am sure that I am seeing living examples of the ancient opponents of Jesus. They seem to worry a lot about gnats and camels and outsides rather than insides. I am not just talking about the extremes when individuals become trapped in criminal hypocrisy, as, for example, when a cleric steals from the church and, at the same time, enforces rigid moral standards on a congregation. The contradictions within one person can be amazingly hypocritical without being criminal. They can also do an enormous amount of harm.
Not noticing our pharisaic streak can be problematic. According to the psalmist, God know what is really going on in our hearts even if we don’t. This should motivate us to beg God to reveal to us the hypocrisy that he already sees. We ought to desire to know ourselves with the same clarity of vision that God has. That would have helped the ancient Pharisees and it would also help their modern counterparts.
In addition to begging, we might follow the example of Paul. Here is a guy who wrestled with his hypocritical demons. He, of course, was a real Pharisee, and in the text today we sense his own struggle to overcome it. He wants to lead, but not dominate; he wants to do God’s work, not the work of his own ego; he wants to share his life with the people, not simply tell them what to do. This must have been hard for him.
Paul’s struggle to overcome his own “pharisaic” streak can serve as an encouraging example to us. Let’s pray that we are brave enough to follow it.
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