You will know that we hear a lot about the Pharisees in the Gospel. They are often pictured as unbending, rigid and judgemental people, they roam the streets catching people out and publicly correcting and admonishing them. It appears, at least from the Gospel, they are people who don’t want to know anyone who has broken the law, anyone who is a public sinner. They are the ones that want to keep the Jewish law to the letter. In our minds eye we see them as the Taliban of a former day.
But in actual fact we may be doing them a dis-service, because instead of being reviled in Israel in times gone by they were deeply respected: wise, virtuous, educated, incorruptible.
To understand better where the Pharisees come in, we have to understand that in Israel at the time of Jesus there were 4 groups of religious leaders: the two that we most often hear about in the Gospel are the Saduccees and the Pharisees.
The Israelites having returned from exile some centuries before having discovered a void of authority, the religious leaders took on a great importance. Their conquerors allowing them to return did not allowed them a king or one of their own to govern them, into that void came the religious leaders – not too unlike the times we live in today in the middle-east. These religious people kept their traditions alive, kept their idea of a nation alive, resolved disputes between them, they were the people that their conquerors went to do business .
If you think in terms of present 20th century UK politics Tories and Labour – the Saduccees were the Tories and the Pharisees were the Labour. The Saducees allied themselves with the elites, the governing classes, they held themselves apart from the people, they were priests associated with the temple and kept themselves apart from the ordinary people. Also they only recognised as important the first 5 books of the Old Testament and nothing else. The Pharisees by contrast were wise religious figures, local heroes, who associated themselves more with the people who attended the synagogues, the daily workings of the Law and helped people to understand it.
These 2 groups came up with different conclusions and disagreed wildly with one another which made for some fierce disagreements, vexatious arguments, bloody noses and black eyes were not uncommon.
The reason why we seem to paint the Pharisees in a bad light in the Gospel is by the time the Gospels get written down about 80, Jerusalem has been burned down and destroyed by the Romans, stone by stone and all the inhabitants put to the sword. Something then followed on in Israel, the Pharisees became the dominant religious force, they decided what was in and what was not in the bible. And they decided who were Jews and who were not Jews. They put the Christians out of the temple and the synagogues, didn’t allow families to associate with Christian believers and stopped anyone associating with them.
This explains why there are many references to a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees, because by the time when especially Matthew writes his Gospel the Christians and the Pharisees are at one another’s throats.
Whether it is true or not, or whether it was as extreme as Matthew says we have no way of knowing. But certainly Matthew sets his Gospel in this context and finally concludes that Jesus life is lost because of this conflict. Infact there are also strange things throughout the Gospel where Matthew makes Jesus sound like a Pharisee – Jesus says “not one dot, not one stroke will be removed from the law until it has achieved its purpose” “you have heard that a man commits adultery but I say to you if a man looks lustfully at a woman, he has already committed adultery in his heart” – these and many other sayings make him sound like a Pharisee would have sounded in his day..
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus makes a criticism of the religious people of his day, the Pharisees, which would make their ears curl. In recalling this Matthew is simply delving into the past, the prophets have plenty to say about their kings and their religious people teachers and priests that was not very complimentary. They name their treachery, their double dealing, their slyness and deceit, their vanity, their unfaithfulness of God. Proof of that is in the first reading when the priests get a message from Malachi of their shortcomings: they are cursed for not keeping the law, they are cursed for showing partiality.
Jesus, in that same vein, feels free to have a go at the Pharisees. Listen to them, he says, but don’t follow what they do. They load burdens on people’s shoulders with laws and restrictions but don’t set them free. They are vain, they like to wear religious dress that gets them noticed, they like titles, they like to get places of privilege and to be taken notice.
If you were a Pharisee it wouldn’t make for easy listening.
But it was expected that people were free to criticise official religious people. In the Old Testament even King David is swore and cursed by a poor man who throws rocks at him. In answer to his soldiers who want to run him through with their swords, David tells them to let him be. The man is allowed to throw stones and to curse the king. The king is not beyond rebuke, not beyond criticism, not beyond being cursed.
People today also, as you know, feel free to criticise religious people of the day. It should be permitted in the same way as the Old Testament allowed it and the same way that Jesus also spoke it. It is necessary to take it on the chin. There is always the danger of being people who should be listened to but people who shouldn’t be followed, because we don’t practice what we preach. There is the danger of vanity that arises in religious life, being too preoccupied with peripheries and not seeing the important things. Being taken up with titles and honours and losing sight of what you are about.
What was true in the Old Testament and the New Testament is just as true today, the traps are there for all to fall into. Setting out to do good you do something bad. Setting out to do the right thing you miss the point.
It is a withering criticism that we must allow others to make of us, to challenge us, to rebuke us, to hold our feet to the fire, as the politicians say.
Whose life is so flawless and blameless that it would stand up to scrutiny. But the criticism is good for us. It holds us to account, it tests us, it makes us think.
That has to be good.