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The pharisees

Andrew Hamilton

In the Scriptures the Pharisees get a bad press. They are accused of being legalist, obsessive about detail, hypocritical and self-serving. The Scriptures, of course, reflect the sharp conflict between the followers of Jesus and the Pharisees. So many scholars ask if we should not give a more positive account of the Pharisees, separating their attitude to law from the hypocrisy, self-interest and obsessiveness with which the Gospels associate it.

Looked at with a little empathy, the Pharisaic way of life is easily seen as noble and generous. In this world God’s love for us and our love of God are woven intricately into the tapestry of daily life. In living by the Law we find God’s favour and will joined to the rhythms of daily life. Times and places, work and play, meals and hygiene, are all turned into ritual. The Pharisee walks with respect and reverence in God’s garden by treading in God’s intricate footsteps.

God takes delight in an ordered world where people live out the Law. Meals properly conducted, with their distinctions between the just and the unjust, between the washed and the unwashed, between clean and impure foods, are the image of the transformed world that we hope God will bring about.

You don’t have to be a Pharisee to admire this way of life. It is faithful and can be lived lightly. So it should seem surprising that in the Gospels, Jesus constantly criticises it, and Paul struggles with its incursion into the Christian community. They do so, not because the way of the Pharisees is bad, but because it is good.

Paul, raised a Pharisee, appreciated their virtues. But the Jesus whom he discovered led him to a God whose way of working was quite other than he had expected. At the centre of God’s world was not the ordered garden, but the wasteland of Golgotha and a man the Law called cursed. The Gospels add that at meals he had associated with sinners and treated the Law cavalierly. The God whom Paul found in Jesus was not rapt with pleasure when looking on people observing the Law, as the Pharisees would have expected. For Paul, the God of Jesus was slightly distracted, concerned for the people who did not count.

Because the vision of the Pharisees is so admirable, it is found within all religions, including Christian churches. It seeks God’s will in rubrical attention to the demands of daily life. But to be made Christian it needs the mind of Christ whose concern for humanity goes beyond law.

We can see the tension in the recent Catholic regulations on communion breads. These exclude coeliacs from full symbolic participation in the Eucharist. The decision belongs to an admirable tradition of attention to foods and ritual prescriptions as the field of faithfulness to God’s will. But is it Christian?

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

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