Honoring With Their Lips

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Quoting Isaiah, he suggests that they “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”

We have all heard passages like this in the synoptic Gospels that criticize the Pharisees, leading us to regard them in fairly low esteem.

Father Simon Tugwell, O.P. suggests that our view toward the Pharisees is too harsh. The Pharisees were, he writes, “probably the best men of their time, the most religious, the most devoted to the will of God, the most eager to express their loyalty to him in obedience to his every word, the most determined never to compromise with the world around them.”

The real problem with the Pharisees was that they thought they had it made because they were so good at following all of the rules. They had a long checklist of all the things they were supposed to do and they did them all. They did them all really well. They followed that long list of rules to a “T.”

The danger that arises when one thinks it is all about simply following the rules to a “T” is that it is too easy for the rules to become unmoored from what inspired them in the first place. The goal becomes getting a good score on the rules, not the devotion to and love for God that the rules were designed in the first instance to facilitate. When that happens, it is easy for God to get lost in the midst of all the rules.