Today’s Gospel brings Jesus face to face with one of his classic adversaries: a Pharisee.
The lessons we’ve just heard are consistent with what we’ve heard all summer. We continue to hear about an old law and a new: the value and necessity of the old but also, critically, its incompleteness without the new law of grace, which fulfills and transcends the old.
I thought we might spend some time this morning talking about these much-maligned Pharisees. Who were they? Why didn’t most of them get along with Jesus, and vice versa? What became of them? Are there lessons here for us today?
So, who were the Pharisees? They were a popular religious and political movement within the Jewish people. Arising somewhere after the Maccabean Revolt—as commemorated in the deuterocanonical books of Maccabees, Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus, and the festival of Chanukah—perhaps 100 BC or so—they were an ardently religious and ardently patriotic movement.
In time, they also came to be a response, or a reaction, to the Sadducee party. Now, the Sadducees were priests, but not just priests—they were the priests who were descended from Zadok the priest, who anointed Solomon king in the days of Nathan the prophet. They were zealous for the temple, its rites, its sacrifices, its supremacy in Jewish faith. They were also quite aristocratic, and were seen by many as being altogether too cozy with the Greek, Hellenistic, worldview and culture .
Enter the Pharisees: many were working-class men or tradesmen, not aristocrats and not necessarily priests. Some were, most weren’t. Some were very powerful in Jewish society, but many were not. Saint Paul calls himself a Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin–not the priestly tribe–and he was a tentmaker. The perfect profile!
The word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word for “separated.” It may also derive from a word that means “one who specifies.” They made a very strong, patriotic, public stand for their Jewish distinctiveness, and they were quite critical of Greek thought and lifestyle. It’s a bit ironic, then, to learn that they also emulated the Greeks in several important ways. So when they lambasted the Sadducees for being too Greek, it was a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.
For one thing, Pharisees took the Greek idea of the academy, and established centers for Jewish thought, prayer, and study that were independent of the temple in Jerusalem. They called these places…synagogues…from the Greek sun-agogein, or to gather together. A gathering-place. It’s in one of these gathering-places, these little academies, where we find Jesus in today’s Gospel.
That’s how come I can say with confidence that the fellow in today’s Gospel who took offense at the woman’s healing was a Pharisee. The text actually calls him “the leader of the synagogue” —in the Greek, archisynagogus, or exactly “leader of the synagogue.” As it was the sabbath, and the priests were working, this leader was probably not a priest. But dollars to donuts, he was a Pharisee, a man deeply schooled in the law, and very proud of his newly-invented title, “My teacher,” or in Hebrew, rabbi.
You can already guess what eventually happened. After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and the Jews expelled from the Holy Land, the Sadducees evaporated. The Judaism that survived was Pharisaic Judaism, also called Talmudic Judaism, or rabbinical Judaism. The Talmud, which is considered “oral revelation,” is an encyclopedia-sized commentary, an odyssey through the Jewish mind, quite fascinating, and quite difficult. Some of it was already known, in oral form, to Jesus…but that’s another story.
If you’d like a sample of pure rabbinical reasoning, I recommend today’s aptly-named Letter to the Hebrews—written in perhaps the best Greek of the New Testament, breathing Platonic logic as well as Jewish legal thought, and altogether a lyrical masterpiece of religious persuasion. I’ve read from Hebrews at temple Torah studies, and the reaction is always one of intense self-recognition. When Hebrews contrast the old and new laws, or as today, sets up a duality between earth and heaven, the Platonic tradition is clearly at work. (St. Augustine’s City of God will also contrast Rome and heaven: the greatest earthly city with the really real city.)
Today, almost every Jew in the world receives the Pharisaic heritage. There are a few exceptions: the Karaite Jews, mainly in Egypt, who reject the Talmud; and the good old Samaritans, all 700 of them, who still worship on Mt. Gerizim in the West Bank, northwest of the Dead Sea. They’re still there, right where Jesus left them. They are the only Jews on earth who have never stopped sacrificing the Passover lamb.
Pharisaic, or normative, Judaism remains a kind of “idealized nationhood,” where the ancient laws are carefully reinterpreted and kept safe inside thick hedges of additional legislation. You’d be surprised to learn that, while God prohibits eating leavened bread at Passover, the rabbis also prohibit rice, peas, lentils, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, mustard, peanuts, fennel, clover, and, cruelest of all, whiskey! From a curious injunction related to pagan worship—do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk—comes the ruling against the Great American Cheeseburger. The logic in both cases is: it’s for your own good.
We must be honest and admit that the Pharisees were not the hidebound spirit-fearing conservatives of the popular image—much more were they re-interpreters, re-appraisers, even revisionists. The Sadducees were the conservatives.
Jesus, meanwhile, understands His role as the One who is to fulfill the Law. His relationship to the Law is much closer, less mediated and more intimate. He has scant time for all of the rules and regulations that the Pharisees devise. As a carpenter, He is a natural candidate for this working-class movement. But He has other ideas—ideas that no line of thought extrapolated from Law can possibly imagine, but only the Author of the law.
Now, let’s be fair: Jesus got along with some of this group. In a few paragraphs farther on from today’s account, a friendly Pharisee comes to warn Jesus of danger. A nd in one passage, He also says one can do as the Pharisees say, albeit not as they do. The antagonism wasn’t always present, and it was often qualified.
Still, the quarrel was fundamental, unavoidable…in Yiddish, bashert. The Old Testament is shot through with warnings not to change the Law, and not to rely on it. As Psalm 50 says, “For in sacrifice you take no delight; burnt offering from me you would refuse. My sacrifice, a contrite spirit: a humbled, contrite heart, O Lord, you will not spurn…”
For His own part, Jesus says “Amen, I say unto you: heaven and earth shall pass away, but not one jot or tittle of the law shall be abolished, till all shall be fulfilled.” Today’s first reading reminds us to honor the laws of the Sabbath, but also to do justice: neither to change the law nor to rely on it. The Pharisees both changed the Law and placed too much reliance on it.
Jesus wasn’t there to re-interpret the Law, or to renew popular devotion to it.
He came to fulfill it.
In reflecting on a message for our own time, I would point out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically says that the old covenants God made with the Jewish people—the covenants of Noah, Abraham, and Moses—have never been revoked. Thus the so-called “replacement theology” misses the mark. Obviously, the Old Testament is more than just a bunch of old stories! On the other hand, the Law—as the prophets have told us from day one—is not salvific in and of itself. By its own terms, and by its own assertions, it requires completion—fulfillment. Jesus can’t be the Lord of my universe, but perhaps not of your universe. Jesus is the Lord of the universe.
The good Samaritans of Mt. Gerizim sacrifice lambs year after year; we offer the Lamb of God, Who taketh away the sins of the world. A sacrifice, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, that need never be repeated. And yet, what would a Paschal Lamb mean at all without the Old Law? The old Roman Rite mentions, at Communion, “the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.” Our own liturgy says, “Again and again you called us into covenant with you, and through the prophets taught us to hope for salvation.” Hope…which is fulfilled in Jesus in the fullness of time.
So we cannot call Judaism somehow nullified or cast aside. And even a Pharisee has something to say. Above all, no theology may ever justify hatred of anyone else. The fruits of that kind of paganism are told hauntingly in the Yom Kippur liturgy: “But in our day, the world grew dark again. The pagan furnace roared, and Israel ascended into the sky as smoke…” We must not allow such things, and God only knows how deep the roots might reach.
For today, then, may our work and prayer center on the life and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah; and may we deepen our faith in His kingship. May we continue to work for a world where no one need be afraid for any reason. May we, too, drink in that sweet, fearless air and proclaim what we know to be true. On this sabbath day, like the lucky lady in the Gospel, may we be set free from all bondage; and like the happy assembly, may we rejoice in the wonderful things He is doing.
Ye blind, behold, your savior comes; and leap, ye lame, for joy!