It sounds so ridiculous to attribute anything good and worthy of emulation to the Pharisees, teachers of the law and the scribes. These people were the main opposition to the work and ministry of Christ in the scriptures. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were men who were knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition and they were always around Jesus to scrutinize him and challenged his behaviour and teachings. The gospels refer to the Pharisees frequently and usually always with regard to their faults. Consequently, in reference, the Pharisees and scribes have almost been defined as hypocrites and misguided zealots; Christendom has largely disparaged them. One is tempted to ask, “What lessons could the present day Christian learn from these individuals?
The Pharisee movement started in the intertestamental period as a group who were upset because the people were abandoning the purity of the covenant that they made to God and were being lax in their obedience to the commandments of God. So the Pharisees sought to draw together and draw apart from the masses and to set a moral example. This was the true garb of the Pharisees and this they sought to dutifully carry out even when they themselves weren’t perfect. They main problem of the Pharisees was the following of the letter of the law and forgetting the spirit of the law.
The two major characteristics of the Pharisees are: First, their meticulous observance of obligations under the law for purity, tithing, and Sabbath observances (Mt 12:1-8; 15:1-6, Lk 11:39-42); and second, their emphasis on oral law as equally binding to the law (Mt 19: 3-12, Jn 8:1-11). These subjects were the cause of the constant rift noticed in the gospel between Jesus and the Pharisees. The provisions of the law was always before them, and it was strange to see Jesus reenacting the law in a way not familiar with theirs.
The Talmud lists seven categories of Pharisees: there is the shouldering Pharisee, who parades his good deeds; there is the delaying Pharisee, who lets business wait in other to do a good deed; there is the bruised Pharisee, who walks into a wall to keep from looking at a woman; there is the pestle Pharisee, who with false humility walks with his head down like a pestle on a mortal; there is the ever-reckoning Pharisee, who asks what good deeds he might do that would be reckoned as cancelling out his neglects; there is the fearful Pharisee, who is in terror of God; and there is the loving Pharisee, who like Abraham loves God, he is admirable.
There is however, one unique event in the gospels that made me admire the Pharisees and the scribes. They exhibited a virtue that is gradually becoming obsolete in our society and falling short of contemporary Christians. Every time I read that passage of the scriptures I salute the courage of the Pharisees to own up to their sins even in the presence of an adversary or competitor. They readily bore the shame of being imperfect than to claim what they weren’t. This event was the story of the Adulterous woman in John’s gospel (Jn 8:1-11). Jesus here criticizes the pharisaic hypocrisy of observing the law to its letter, but not fulfilling its spirit. He threw a challenge to the Pharisees and they responded well. “Let anyone who has no sin be the first to throw a stone at her…, when they heard this, they went away, one by one starting with the elders and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (Jn 8: 7-9).
Self-justification has eaten deep into the fabrics of our Christian lives; the garb of self-righteousness has replaced that of humility. I was privileged to serve at a Eucharistic celebration of the mass where this passage (Jn 8:1-11) was the gospel text of the day. The priest in his homily was emphasizing the need to be merciful for we all have sinned and are still prone to sin. In a rhetoric question form he asked: Is there anyone who is without sin here? Two people in the congregation raised their hands. The first man was sitting on the second pew, close to the altar; while the other man was a little farther behind. The priest had to restructure the question, he said: I mean to say, if you haven’t sinned since you accepted Christ and became a Christian. The hands of the two men were still raised. Their action was too bold and distracting to be ignored, so the priest questioned the man sitting on the second pew close to the altar. The conservation went thus:
Priest: Sir, you mean you are without sin?
The man: Yes father.
Priest: Sir, are you saying you do not go to bed without making sure that those around you are not hungry or in need?
Man: Yes father.
Priest: You mean to say that you keep God’s commandments without faulting any; that you attend mass and receive the Holy Communion worthily; and that you live an exemplary Christian life?
Man: Yes father, with all my mind and heart.
Priest: And do you go for confession regularly?
Man: Yes, I do
Priest: So, what do you confess at the confessional?
At this moment, he didn’t know what to say, his countenance fell and his face was downcast. The priest raised his head and directed his gaze to the second man who raised his hands. Behold, the hands were down already. Returning his gaze to the first man the priest exclaimed, Oh what a righteous man.
Sincerely, I praise the courage and truthful disposition of the Pharisees and the scribes, who acknowledging their own unrighteousness quietly left the scene. Today, we can throw accusations at the Pharisees and the scribes on account of their extreme piety and their quest to prove a point to Jesus by placing a daisy situation before him, but am afraid to say that Jesus would have received a different reaction if he was to ask that question today. Before he would have bent himself to the ground the second time, stones like the dew fall would have descended on the adulterous woman. He surely would not be left alone with a standing healthy woman, but rather a lifeless body disfigured by the impact of the stoning.
Today, words have replaced stones, and these words are mercilessly thrown at sinners without a second thought. No one wants to be seen as not righteous, no one acknowledges his/her own faults. The unrighteous is the one who is caught, others are pure and sinless. People go to surprising lengths to prove their righteousness like the righteous man encountered in the Church. If only we can be more conscious; if only we can quietly walk away; if only we can respond to others mindful of our own iniquities, if only we can.