John Lilburne's journal about the Pharisees, their role in the Gospels and the Catechism.



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1745 L Sun 28 Oct 2001

Last night we moved our clocks forward an hour. Its now "daylight savings time" so we are 11 hours ahead of GMT, instead of the10 hours ahead that we were yesterday. So I now have the "L" after the time.

In today's homily at the cathedral, Archbishop Hart spoke about the Pharisees, so I have been thinking about them. The Gospel reading was Luke 18:9-14, from the Jerusalem Bible:

Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: 'Two men went up to the Temple to pray, on a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get." The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.'

Jesus had confrontations with the Pharisees and accused them of hypocrisy. For example in Mark 7:1-6:

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round him, and they noticed some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, 'Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?' He answered, 'It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in the passage of scripture: This people honours me only with lip-service, ...

In Mark 8:15 Jesus associates the Pharisees with Herod, who had John the Baptist executed: "Keep your eyes open; be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod."

In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus says: "The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what the do: since the do not practice what they preach...."

It is noticeable that the Pharisees are not mentioned when Jesus appears before the council, that lead to his crucifixion. Only "chief priests, scribes and the elders" are mentioned (eg. Matthew 26:57, Mark 14:53, Luke 23:1). In John 18:3 those who arrest Jesus are described as "the cohort to this place together with a detachment of guards sent by the chief priests and the Pharisees". But the questioning of Jesus (in John) is by the High Priest, again the Pharisees are not mentioned.

What are my conclusions? I see this Pharisees as being given "back-handed compliments" in terms of promoting the law and being respected. I see them as being a particular problem in failing to practice what they preach, being hypocrites. I see them as engaging with Jesus on religious issues, as rivals. But I do not see them as enemies, who had him executed, the way the "chief priests, scribes and elders" are depicted.

Here is what my search for "pharisees" in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church found on them:

535. "Jesus' public life begins with his baptism by John in the Jordan.[Cf. Lk 3:23 ; Acts 1:22 .] John preaches 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins'.[lK 3:3.] A crowd of sinners[Cf. Lk 3:10-14 ; Mt 3:7 ; Mt 21:32 .] - tax collectors and soldiers, PHARISEES and Sadducees, and prostitutes- come to be baptized by him. 'Then Jesus appears.' The Baptist hesitates, but Jesus insists and receives baptism. Then the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, comes upon Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaims, 'This is my beloved Son.'[Mt 3:13-17 .] This is the manifestation ('Epiphany') of Jesus as Messiah of Israel and Son of God."

574. "From the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, certain PHARISEES and partisans of Herod together with priests and scribes agreed together to destroy him.[Cf. Mk 3:6 ; Mk 14:1 .] Because of certain acts of his expelling demons, forgiving sins, healing on the sabbath day, his novel interpretation of the precepts of the Law regarding purity, and his familiarity with tax collectors and public sinners[Cf. Mt 12:24 ; Mk 2:7,14-17 ; Mk 3:1-6 ; Mk 7:14-23 .]--some ill- intentioned persons suspected Jesus of demonic possession.[Cf. Mk 3:22 ; Jn 8:48 ; Jn 10:20 .] He is accused of blasphemy and false prophecy, religious crimes which the Law punished with death by stoning.[Cf. Mk 2:7 ; Jn 5:18 ; Jn 7:12, 52 ; Jn 8:59 ; Jn 10:31, 33 .] "

575. "Many of Jesus' deeds and words constituted a 'sign of contradiction',[Lk 2:34 .] but more so for the religious authorities in Jerusalem, whom the Gospel according to John often calls simply 'the Jews',[Cf. Jn 1:19 ; Jn 2:18 ; Jn 5:10 ; Jn 7:13 ; Jn 9:22 ; Jn 18:12 ; Jn 19:38 ; Jn 20:19 .] than for the ordinary People of God.[Jn 7:48-49 .] To be sure, Christ's relations with the PHARISEES were not exclusively polemical. Some PHARISEES warn him of the danger he was courting;[Cf Lk 13:31 .] Jesus praises some of them, like the scribe of Mark 12:34, and dines several times at their homes.[Cf. Lk 7:36 ; Lk 14:1 .] Jesus endorses some of the teachings imparted by this religious elite of God's people: the resurrection of the dead,[Cf. Mt 22:23-34 ; Lk 20:39 .] certain forms of piety (almsgiving, fasting and prayer),[Cf. Mt 6:18 .] the custom of addressing God as Father, and the centrality of the commandment to love God and neighbour.[Cf. Mk 12:28-34 .]"

576. "In the eyes of many in Israel, Jesus seems to be acting against essential institutions of the Chosen People: - submission to the whole of the Law in its written commandments and, for the PHARISEES, in the interpretation of oral tradition; - the centrality of the Temple at Jerusalem as the holy place where God's presence dwells in a special way; - faith in the one God whose glory no man can share. "

579. "This principle of integral observance of the Law not only in letter but in spirit was dear to the PHARISEES. By giving Israel this principle they had led many Jews of Jesus' time to an extreme religious zeal.[Cf. Rom 10:2 .] This zeal, were it not to lapse into 'hypocritical' casuistry,[Cf. Mt 15:31 ; Lk 11:39-54 .] could only prepare the People for the unprecedented intervention of God through the perfect fulfilment of the Law by the only Righteous One in place of all sinners.[Cf Is 53:11 ; Heb 9:15 .]"

581. "The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi.[Cf Jn 11:28 ; Jn 3:2 ; Mt 22:23-24, 34-36 .] He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the Law.[Cf. Mt 12:5 ; Mt 9:12 ; Mk 2:23-27 ; Lk 6:6-g ; Jn 7:22-23 .] Yet Jesus could not help but offend the teachers of the Law, for he was not content to propose his interpretation alongside theirs but taught the people 'as one who had authority, and not as their scribes'.[Mt 7:28-29 .] In Jesus, the same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes.[Cf. Mt 5:1 .] Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: 'You have heard that it was said to the men of old. . . But I say to you. . .'[Mt 5:33-34 .] With this same divine authority, he disavowed certain human traditions of the PHARISEES that were 'making void the word of God'.[Mk 7:13 ; cf. Mk 3:8 .]"

588. "Jesus scandalized the PHARISEES by eating with tax collectors and sinners as familiarly as with themselves.[Cf. Lk 5:30 ; Lk 7:36 ; Lk 11:37 ; Lk 14:1 .] Against those among them 'who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others', Jesus affirmed: 'I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'[Lk 18:9 ; Lk 5:32 ; cf. Jn 7:49 ; Jn 9:34 .] He went further by proclaiming before the PHARISEES that, since sin is universal, those who pretend not to need salvation are blind to themselves.[Cf. Jn 8:33-36 ; Jn 9:40-41 .]"

595. "Among the religious authorities of Jerusalem, not only were the Pharisee Nicodemus and the prominent Joseph of Arimathea both secret disciples of Jesus, but there was also long-standing dissension about him, so much so that St. John says of these authorities on the very eve of Christ's Passion, 'many.. . believed in him', though very imperfectly.[Jn 12:42 ; cf. Jn 7:50 ; Jn 9:16-17 ; Jn 10:19-21 ; Jn 19:38-39 .] This is not surprising, if one recalls that on the day after Pentecost 'a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith' and 'some believers. . . belonged to the party of the PHARISEES', to the point that St. James could tell St. Paul, 'How many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; and they are all zealous for the Law.'[Acts 6:7 ; Acts 15:5 ; Acts 21:20 .]"

596. "The religious authorities in Jerusalem were not unanimous about what stance to take towards Jesus.[cf. Jn 9:16 ; Jn 10:19 .] The PHARISEES threatened to excommunicate his followers.[Cf Jn 9:22 .] To those who feared that 'everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation', the high priest Caiaphas replied by prophesying: 'It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.'[Jn 11:48-50 .] The Sanhedrin, having declared Jesus deserving of death as a blasphemer but having lost the right to put anyone to death, hands him over to the Romans, accusing him of political revolt, a charge that puts him in the same category as Barabbas who had been accused of sedition.[Cf. Mt 26:66 ; Jn 18:31 ; Lk 23:2, 19 .] The chief priests also threatened Pilate politically so that he would condemn Jesus to death.[Cf. Jn 19:12, 15, 21 .] Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus' death".

993. "The PHARISEES and many of the Lord's contemporaries hoped for the resurrection. Jesus teaches it firmly. To the Sadducees who deny it he answers, 'Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?'[Mk 12:24 ; cf. In 11:24; Acts 23:6 .] Faith in the resurrection rests on faith in God who 'is not God of the dead, but of the living.'[Mk 12:27 .]"T

2054. "Jesus acknowledged the Ten Commandments, but he also showed the power of the Spirit at work in their letter. He preached a 'righteousness (which) exceeds that of the scribes and PHARISEES'[Mt 5:20 .] as well as that of the Gentiles.[Cf. Mt 5:46-47 .] He unfolded all the demands of the Commandments. 'You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill.' . . . But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.'[Mt 5:21-22 .]"

2285. "Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: 'Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.'[Mt 18:6 ; Cf. 1 Cor 8:10-13 .] Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and PHARISEES on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing.[Cf. Mt 7:15 .]"

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 28 October 2001.


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