In Partial Praise of Pharisees

The Pharisees tend to get a bad rap. Okay, maybe they deserve the criticism. But at the peak of their power they were known as a revolutionary movement. They were like T-totalers without a self-contradictory name. They were the religious radicals who decided to take piety seriously, very seriously in fact. And they were taken seriously by the people. Jesus himself acknowledges their credibility by debating them. It warms our hearts to think of Jesus dismissing them all with a wave of his hand, preferably with whip in hand. However, we fail to remember that Jesus is pure love and even in his rebukes he does not act in vengeance—for “the Father chastises those he loves” the epistle to the Hebrews tells us. Besides, Scripture mentions some of them like Nicodemus who were seeking the truth. This is not an appeal for their absolution, but if we are going to learn from their mistakes, we had better understand what exactly was so reprehensible about their conduct.

History condemns them as scrupulous and then puts a period on the end of that sentence.

Scrupulosity is the term for special concern for little matters. The word conjures images of Pharisees brooding over their phylacteries, counting their steps on the Sabbath, measuring their minutes of prayer. Although, when Christians or even non-Christians accuse a man of being scrupulous or a modern Pharisee, they most often mean he holds to customs religiously, which is not the main content of Jesus’ rebukes. In Jesus’ words, the Pharisees are hypocrites. Hypocrisy is a Greek word with a theatrical connotation that literally means to act or play the part of a virtuous person in order to appear good in the eyes of others. Jesus does not object to customs or to following them faithfully: on one occasion, Jesus tells the Pharisees their practice of tithing mint and dill (an over and above act of devotion) should have been done, but should have been done with right intention.

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In other words, Jesus commends attention to the little details when done from a good motive. The Pharisees are the target of Jesus’ reproaches not for magnifying the miniature in the spiritual life, but for mocking it. A serious reader of Scripture will be shocked at how much God cares about the little things. Throughout the old and new testaments God appears less merciful and more petty than modern man, as many of his own people perish for seemingly small offenses. In Leviticus, Aaron’s sons do not obey the Lord’s command concerning sacrifice and are consumed by fire. In Numbers, Moses strikes the rock and is prevented from ever entering the Promised Land for his lack of trust. In II Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant slips from the hands of those carrying it, and in an effort to save its fall, a man named Uzzah touches it directly and is dead on the spot. In Acts, Ananias and Sapphira conspire to give only a portion of their money to the Church, and because they lied and said it was the whole amount, they too pushed up the daisies.

It is the little matters that matter precisely because this is where love is proved. St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, said “Love means deeds, not sweet words.” This sentence is innately true to us. What woman would accept the words “I love you” from her lover if there was no evidence of love? We know that “actions speak louder than words” for they reveal the inner character of a man. The reputations of many pleasant and sweet-talking men and women have spoiled as a result of their actions.

What is true in human relationships is true of our relationship with God, for Jesus tells us this repeatedly. His preaching ministry is a revelation of God and how we should relate to him. Perhaps the most famous example is the parable of the prodigal son, where we are taught to know God as a merciful Father. But after establishing God as Father, he demonstrates, with a human metaphor, the conclusion of the idea that love is proved by actions. Jesus tells the story of two sons told by their father to go into the vineyard. While the first refused, he changed his mind and went; the second said yes, but never went. Jesus then asks his hearers, which of these did the will of his father. The answer is obvious and Jesus leaves no doubt about his message.

If Jesus’ preaching were not clear enough for his disciples, Jesus’ own presence is his revelation of God, for he is God in person. When Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father, Jesus says, in so many words, “I’m standing right in front of you!” And this real Jesus of the Gospels, this real God the Father, cares about acts of love. When he visits the house of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus compares Simon’s lack of concern for Jesus with the sinful woman. He says, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).

For these reasons, the Church has always taken quite seriously the little acts of devotion, the small matters of love. Catholics are not the only ones who are sensitive to these small matters. Speaking about church attire, former president of the Evangelical Protestant institution, Wheaton College (IL), A. Duane Litfin, said “Of course God doesn’t care if you wear a tie to church. But he does care about the message you are communicating by the way you dress.” In other words, though these minor acts of devotion are not direct laws from God, they are rooted in our humanity, in how we prove our love. Moreover, they can become the spark, and the very means by which we grow in love. When we bend the knee in Mass, we are reminded to bend the heart, and when we clasp our hands as beggars, we are reminded to rely on God’s bountiful charity.

Conversely, laziness with regards to the little matters allows a man to drift further from reality, and therefore God. These are the types who are “spiritual, but not religious,” who find regular church attendance cumbersome, who either stop praying altogether or who find solace in a sort of mystical spirituality that denies matter. In fact, so closely did he cling to a non-material religiosity that Ralph Waldo Emerson—the famous essayist who was also a Unitarian minister—concluded that he could no longer consecrate the Eucharist unless the bread and wine were absent.

Today, many people want their churches to look like conference centers, for they think only of function, not love. Kneelers are not comfortable, stained glass is expensive, and who needs beauty? We do. Sadly, we are not thinking like lovers who burn with attraction for their love. We want to be fed by the bread and wine and then off we go. Even children ask their parents to be excused from the dinner table.

Even Evangelical Protestants, who are known for emphasizing a personal relationship with God, have lost touch with how we should relate to him. An Evangelical Protestant friend recently related how her Presbyterian church decided to create two services: one traditional and one contemporary. Though they occurred at separate times, it was determined that the contemporary service should be held in the gym, not the sanctuary. Apparently the sanctuary is an interference to their understanding of God and his worship. It should not surprise us that there is a direct relationship between how we worship and how we understand God.

Refusing to see God as a person has landed us here; only returning to the Jesus of the Gospels can return us. The promoters of this culture of lukewarmness, whether Protestant or Catholic, would have us believe that it is they who are seeing God as a person, for they dress and act casually as one does with a friend, for Jesus is their friend, they assert. Jesus is our friend, indeed, but we do not have the same definition of friend. A friend cares and anticipates the needs of his friend, he avoids what offends him and says what pleases him, he spends time with him and does not treat his friend’s possessions and time recklessly. He does so because no human relationship would survive the inattention and lack of commitment so characteristic of many of our relationships with God. Good friends lavish attention on the people who are closest to them; they do not ignore them more and take them for granted, or else the relationship would suffer and sever eventually.

It is clear that the failure to see God as a person is at the heart of Phariseeism; it ought to be equally clear that it is at the heart of our Christian culture that damns Pharisees with such self-righteousness and abandons customs as forcibly as the Pharisees clung to them. Read Leviticus. That is not a joke. Read the laws. Read of God’s concern and care for his people, for his intricate and complex instructions in Exodus for the building of his tabernacle. Above all, read the Gospels, for there we meet Jesus face to face and he will teach us how to love him. Moreover, read the fathers of the church and the great devotional texts of the saints—you will not find indifference, wasted moments, words or gestures. You will find integrity of life, fidelity to his Church, and love in action; and you will be wise to imitate it.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene with Nicodemus (Laurence Olivier) and Jesus (Robert Powell) from the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a writer and lay catechist from Naperville, IL, who has published articles in Catholic World Report and Touchstone Magazine.

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