The Sin of the Pharisees

In yesterday and today’s Gospels from St. Matthew, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees in fairly harsh terms, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, and worse. Long familiar with these passages, we tend to hold the Pharisees in fairly low regard; Father Simon Tugwell, O.P. suggests that it is “all too easy for us to treat the Pharisees as embodying all that is worst in humankind.”

Tugwell suggests that our view toward the Pharisees is a tad 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.

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Letter vs. Spirit of the Law

I’ve been continuing to reflect on the series of Gospels from Matthew containing Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees, about which I wrote yesterday. The Pharisees, by all external appearances, follow the law, yet Jesus tells them they are “like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.”

There is something to the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. It is possible to follow the letter of the law to the fullest and yet completely lose the spirit. And sometimes, keeping the spirit of the law may require a little easing of the letter of the law.

What came to my mind when I was reflecting on the Gospel was an incident that occurred, oh, probably six or seven years ago, when my daughter (now 15) was first learning to cook. On this particular morning, she had made pancakes from scratch. It was one of the first times she had made them. (They are now one of her specialities and she makes awesome pancakes of several varieties.) She insisted I try a piece as I was on the way out the door.

Now, I was on the way to morning mass and the “law” says we refrain from eating for an hour before receiving the Eucharist. So I told her as I walked past on the way out the door that I would taste it later, but she was insistent I try it and put a forkful of pancake into my mouth. I got outside, closed the door and started to take the food from my mouth so that I wouldn’t violate the law. But I stopped for a second to consider the situation.

Would it really be to the greater glory of God for me to throw to the ground food carefully prepared by my daughter, which she so wanted me to share, for the sake of avoiding eating something an hour before communion? Did God really prefer that I waste the food rather than eat it? The answer seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, to be no, and so I ate – and enjoyed – the piece of pancake. That seemed to me to show greater respect to the food I was about to receive at Mass, to show greater respect for the Body of Christ, than the alternative.

No question I violated the letter of the law. But I don’t think my action was at all inconsistent with the spirit of reverence for the Eucharist and it is hard for me to believe God saw wrongdoing in my acting as I did.