In Fairness to the Pharisees

In the popular mind, the Pharisees come across as the quintessential villains in the hero’s story. They are always stalking our Lord, conspiring against him, trying to entrap him. If the Gospel were a western, they would wear the black hats. They seem to be the ultimate bad guys.

But that’s not really fair; the Sadducees were far worse. The Pharisees at least had some theological substance. The Sadducee did not believe in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, or angels. Such a truncated theology leads inevitably to a worldly way of thinking and acting. Money and power easily edge out devotion.

Thus it was that the Sadducees were the aristocratic class and the power brokers for Israel. They ran the Temple and negotiated things with the Romans. In that role, they grew comfortable with cutting corners on matters of faith for the sake of wealth and temporal power. Nor is this type of religious person unfamiliar to us. In fact, he often runs for public office.

Not surprisingly, our Lord almost never engages the Sadducees. What’s the point? There was no devotion or principle to appeal to. He inveighs against the Pharisees frequently. But he debates the Sadducees only once when they approach him. (see Mt 22:23-33)

As we know, the Pharisees receive the brunt of our Lord’s invective: hypocrites…blind guides…fools…whitewashed tombs…serpents, etc. (see Mt 23). But if he engaged them strongly it’s because there was something to engage. Unlike the Sadducees, they had zeal and conviction that could be set right. And this gets to the strength of the Pharisees.

They were, as we know, devoted to the law of Israel. Not just the Mosaic but the hundreds of other laws that had grown up around it. This typically prompts us to pronounce them legalistic. But, again, that’s not quite fair. The desire and goal of the laws were noble: to incorporate devotion to the Lord into every facet of life.

Hence, the laws about such small things as the “the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.” (Mk 7:4) By way of those laws, they sought to live the Torah in every situation in their daily lives. Even more, they hoped and expected that their fidelity to these things would hasten the Messiah’s coming.

Still, it ended up as legalism. Every vice is the distortion of a virtue. So the great tragedy of the Pharisees was not their devotion to the Law but the distortion of that devotion. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Mt 23:23)


The law became for them not a means to an end – a way of coming to God – but an end in itself. Their devotion to it became a form of idolatry. They got so caught up in the Law of Moses that they did not recognize the Lawgiver; so caught up in laws that they did not recognize the fulfillment of the Law.

Now, we shouldn’t fault the Pharisees too strongly, for two reasons. First, because we’re all Pharisees. We all try to substitute pious practices and observances for an authentic relationship with God. Like them, we fall into a mercantile mentality in our relationship with God, replacing external acts for interior devotion. After all, it’s much easier to do things and observe an external law than to invest oneself interiorly in relationship with Christ.

But more importantly, we should appreciate the Pharisees because even in their legalism they remind us that there is a Law. They at least had the conviction that there is a way to live, speak, and act in accord with creation and revelation; that there is an objective truth about how to live an authentically human life; that there is a way of acting in right relationship with God. And that way of living – that law – can be known. “Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!” (Bar 4:4)

We, however, live in a lawless culture. We suffer a metaphysical lawlessness: the rejection of any truth about who we are and how to live. Our society no longer recognizes the objective truth – the law – of man. We do not even know ourselves as male and female or as created beings.

“Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question.” (Pope Benedict XVI) Of course, without nature, there is no natural law…no norm for our behavior…no basis for any laws. If the Pharisees couldn’t see the Law for the laws, we have rejected the Law itself.

Saint Paul warns us against the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3), by which he doesn’t mean a scofflaw or rioter. He means the devil himself, the one who rejects any law, norm, or objective truth. It is the one who rejects the nature of things and tempts us to grasp for authority to do likewise: you will be like gods…

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” That question, although meant as a trap, rests on an essential truth: there is a law containing commands about us and our behavior. Our Lord, knowing full well the intentions of the inquisitors, answers the question more profoundly than anticipated. He gives us the twofold command to love God and neighbor.

But for us to arrive at this law of love, we have to accept first that there is law, the truth about what we are, and how to live. Our current lawlessness seems fun at first, because it enables us to do whatever we want. But it eventually turns sour. Sooner or later we realize that, all law being vanquished, we have no obligation to love God or to love one another…and we are miserably alone in the world.

In fairness to the Pharisees, we could use a little reminder of the law – about our human nature, about our design for love, and about the Lawgiver who both commands and enables us to love God and neighbor.


*Image: Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), c. 1570 [The MET, New York]

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.