How to Avoid Sliding into Pharisee-ism
A priest friend once reminded me that not ALL the Pharisees were so blinded by their self-righteousness that they failed to recognize that the One whom they so often sought to correct was God Incarnate. And, of course, he was correct. The Pharisees were a genuine religious reform movement which sought to bring faithful Jews back to living the fullness of the Law of Moses in order to witness to the truth. However, the ones who the evangelists who penned the four Gospels used to communicate a danger which can afflict all of us, those ones were certainly blinded by their own self-righteousness. They succumbed to the sin of spiritual pride. That is why they are given to us as tutors. But by the grace of God, we can fall into the same trap. It happens before we know what has occurred.
Christ Before the High Priest, by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) hangs in the London Museum of Art. The painting depicts Jesus, standing before the High priest - with His holy hands bound. The Priest, who at the time I thought was a Pharisee, is looking up with an arrogant demeanor and a pointed finger.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - For the last few days, the Gospel proclaimed at daily Mass has been taken from the 23rd chapter of St Matthew where Jesus confronts, corrects and then seems to lambast the Pharisees.
A priest friend once reminded me that not ALL the Pharisees were so blinded by their self-righteousness that they failed to recognize that the One whom they so often sought to correct was God Incarnate.
And, of course, he was correct.
The Pharisees were a genuine religious reform movement which sought to bring faithful Jews back to living the fullness of the Law of Moses in order to witness to the truth.
However, the ones who the evangelists who penned the four Gospels used to communicate a danger which can afflict all of us, those ones were certainly blinded by their own self-righteousness. They succumbed to the sin of spiritual pride.
That is why they are given to us as tutors. But by the grace of God, we can fall into the same trap. It happens before we know what has occurred.
As one who serves in ordained ministry and preaches and teaches, I truly need the reminder. Today's words in the Gospel seemed particularly harsh. Jesus called these religious folks "Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!" (Matt. 23: 23-26)
The Pharisees did not realize what had happened to them. They prided themselves on their strict adherence to the Law - and believed they were being devout. Yet, they had been blinded and become incapable of seeing the Source and Fulfillment of the Law as He stood in their midst.
I suggest that we can easily become those kind of men and women, if we fail to stay in a fresh and ongoing intimate communion with the Lord. Yesterday's prayer will not keep that communion alive. Yesterday's acts of love will not keep the power of the Holy Spirit flowing today.
Sliding into Pharisee-ism seems to be a particularly dangerous temptation for those who consider themselves to be devout. It is an easy trap to fall into. A trap we need to be on the lookout for in our own lives.
And, fall is the operative word. We fall into the path and get swept along. Before we know it, we become those blind guides and white washed sepulchers, straining out the gnat while swallowing the camel. Readily correcting others while we fall into trap of the roots of every sin, pride.
The really horrible truth about this malady is we may not know it is even happening. Then, we find ourselves awakened to its corrosive effects through the bad fruit within us - and around us.
Decades ago I was an early responder in one of what have now been collectively called the ecclesial movements in the Catholic Church.
I became a lay leader in a group which was enthusiastic in its sincere desire to live the fullness of the Catholic Christian Life and bring others into the same experience.
Over time, some of us fell into the trap. By God's grace, I had my eyes opened in a way which now visibly informs my daily life. I had been convicted by the Holy Spirit of my failings in leadership - and my own pride.
I asked to take some time away from lay leadership to reflect on the entire experience.
A dear friend, unaware of my own inner journey, gave me a print of a famous painting by an artist named Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) which hangs in the London Museum of Art. It is entitled Christ Before the High Priest .
I was quite young and knew nothing of the artist or the painting. However, it was beautifully framed and fit well in the room in the basement where I always took my morning prayer during those years.
During an intense period of prayer and reflection one particular morning, the scene in the painting burst off the wall, as good art can do - and entered into my heart.
The heart, in the biblical sense of the word, is the moral center of a man or woman, the place from which he or she makes the fundamental choices which change both the world around them and the world within them.
The painting depicts Jesus, standing before the High priest - with His holy hands bound. The Priest, who at the time I thought was a Pharisee, is looking up with an arrogant demeanor and a pointed finger.
Before him on the table is the Torah, opened up as though he were truly reading it, and he was ready to correct.
Yet, standing right in front of him is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ, the One greater who is than the Temple, the One who is the Lord of the Sabbath, the One who fulfills every promise in that Book.
I thought to myself, "How could a man get to this point? How could he fail to see the Light of the World before him?"
I sensed the Lord prompting a response in my heart as I looked more deeply into the eyes of the High Priest and the eyes of Jesus as depicted in that painting.
The response I heard in my heart was, "You have become that man".
The experience shook me to the core and literally changed my life. I also pledged to hang that print in every office I ever had for the rest of my life as a steady and sure guide, and loving warning, to watch over my own prayer and relationship with the Lord. To avoid becoming stale and relying on yesterday's bread.
I have followed through on that pledge for decades.
We are invited to begin, and begin again, and again - every day - with fresh new grace from the Lord. However, we need to continually seek Him. We need to realize how desperately we need a Savior.
Perhaps that is one of the lessons we can learn this morning. We are called to deal with our own inner Pharisee today.
When we do, the whole world will begin to look different. And we will become different. We will see Jesus with the eyes of living faith and he can transform us more fully into His Image as His grace works within us.
Then, we can participate with Him in His redemptive mission by living our lives in Him, as members of His Body, the Church. We can participate in making all things new by allowing the Lord to spread His light and love through us, liberating a world that is steeped in darkness.
Deacon Keith Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and six grandchildren, He serves as the Director of Adult Faith Formation at St. Stephen, Martyr Parish in Chesapeake, VA. He is also a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate.
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