This year, I have been making an effort to study the Gospels, especially this year’s Gospel, Matthew, better than I have before. What has most struck me is the centrality of the Pharisees. But one of my favorite things about the Pharisees is how accusations of Phariseeism boomerang. Jesus manages to accuse them without becoming one himself, but every time I point out Phariseeism, I find myself committing it.
In this week’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “They will not lift a finger” to help people carry the burdens they lay, and, “They preach but they do not practice.”
But the readings start with the minor prophet Malachi cursing the priests of Israel: “You have caused many to falter by your instruction.” His particular accusation is “you show partiality in your decisions.” The Hebrew for that is something like, “You look up,” looking at whom they are judging instead of, like our blindfolded Lady Justice, looking only at the case itself.
Thus he ends, “Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?” Instead of angling for whom we can benefit from, we should treat others right, because they are our equals and because they belong to God. So too – looking back to our Gospel – we should help others carry their loads instead of trying to gain honors.
But one thing that’s fun about this juxtaposition of texts is that the Pharisees are the opposite of the people Malachi is blaming. Malachi is talking to the Levites, the ones who serve in the temple. But in Jesus’s day, that was the Sadducees, the enemy of the Pharisees. The Pharisees thought the Sadduccees, who were worried only about temple observance were – something like what we would call liberals, not tough enough on how people behave outside of church.
In short, both sides of the argument are, in the broad sense, “Pharisees.” Both sides are failing to practice what they preach. There is plenty of blame to go around.
There is plenty in today’s Gospel that we can use to accuse the priests – or the blamers of priests – of our day. It is true that they tie up heavy burdens hard to carry, but will not lift a finger to move them. It is true that they sit in the chair of Moses, teaching with authority, so that we should observe all the things they tell us – but often we should not follow their example. It is true that they often seem to love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Father.’ Some may disagree, but I don’t think we get anywhere denying that there is much about our clergy that is less than inspiring.
And it’s true, as Malachi says, that they ought to have greater respect for the people whom they serve. The priesthood doesn’t make you the one special member of the congregation. It makes you a servant of all, because we are all part of the priestly people, all called to holiness. I think priests would behave better if they remembered the dignity of the Christian people. So would the people who blame priests.
Fine. But here’s my point: we are a priestly people in another sense, too. We are all guilty of the sins of the priests, all guilty of what Malachi blames the Levites for, and Jesus blames the Pharisees for. We all need Jesus to tell us, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Whatever we accuse others of, the accusation comes back to ourselves. Whatever gripes you have with other Christians, whatever you think many clergy are guilty of (whether you think they’re too strict or too lazy) – look to yourself. It’s not so much that we shouldn’t judge others, as that we should judge ourselves.
In all these passages about the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to judge ourselves. Perhaps we start by seeing Phariseeism in others, but always the accusation boomerangs to us.
Instead, as Paul says of himself, let us be “gentle” with one another, “as a nursing mother cares for her children.” Let us share “the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved” may we see others.
In that way, and only in that way, we can make sure that “receiving the word of God from hearing us,” they may receive “not a human word, but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”
Who in the Church do you tend to judge? How are you guilty of the same things?