The Pharisees get a bad rap. There, I said it. So often we like to label the Pharisees as the villains of the Gospel. We do this because life is easier when we have clear cut heroes and villains. Just like in Transformers—the good guys are the Autobots and they wear red symbols, and the bad guys are the Deceptions and they wear purple symobls. The hero of the Gospels is easy—it’s Jesus, by the way—so the Pharisees must be the villains, right? Well, they’re not; in fact, they’re more like modern-day Christians than we might be comfortably admitting.
In our Gospel from Mark we see the Pharisees chastise Jesus’ followers for eating with defiled hands, that is not washing their hands before a meal. And then we hear Jesus chastise the Pharisees. He calls them hypocrites and directly contradicts them by claiming that nothing from the outside can make someone unclean. Uncleanliness comes from within, not without. The Pharisees are wrong.
But who exactly are the Pharisees? They are, for lack of a better word, fundamentalists. They know the Torah, the Law, backwards and forwards. They know the Prophets, and they know that no prophet is supposed to arise from Nazareth, which is why they don’t trust Jesus. They’re not bad people. Paul, after all, was a Pharisee and even says so in his letter to the Philippians. They’re just doing what they think God wants them to do. God gave them the Law and the Prophets, and they have devoted their whole lives to the Law and the Prophets. In some ways they are what we all strive to be. And they’re only doing what Moses commanded the people to do in our reading from Deuteronomy today: they do not add or take away from the Law and they are diligent in their observations and teachings. But they’re not the villains.
The Pharisees try to stick to the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, and their strict adherence has blinded them. They’ve forgotten what’s important, that ones heart be in the right place. Forget the fact that Jesus and his disciples are curing people, forget that they are bringing people hope, that they are spreading the Good News that the Kingdom of God is both here and is coming. No, what matters is that they follow every single letter of the law.
This tension between strict observance and a somewhat more lax view of religious life will characterize the Church. It will be at the heart of Paul’s ministry, when he goes to the Gentiles, the worst of the worst as far as his people were concerned, and shares the Good News with them. It will be at the so-called Council of Jerusalem, when the apostles gathered with other elders and debated which pieces of the Jewish Law were mandatory for followers of Jesus. And it continues to characterize the Church all the way up to today, leading many to throw up their hands and say, “Why bother?” in the midst of so much arguing.
Every single one of us has acted like a Pharisee at some point in our lives. That doesn’t mean we’re bad people, it just means that sometimes we put our blinders on and focus so much on our own ways of thinking that we forget what's important, even to the point of neglecting others. We all have ideas on how church should be conducted and how Christians are supposed to act, after all, and whenever change happens we get in a bit of a tizzy. Maybe it was when the altars got moved off the walls. Maybe it was when we started ordaining women and openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks. Maybe it was when someone dared sit in your pew on a Sunday or the priest said we’re gonna start using a new Prayer Book. The reaction is usually the same, “We’ve never done it that way!” Those, brothers and sisters, are the last 6 words of a dying church. Those 6 words were the rallying cry for the Pharisees. And are still the rallying cry for fundamentalists today.
There is a fine line between Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism. Orthodoxy—which the Episcopal Church teaches—is about dogma, those beliefs and deeper Truths about God that the Church has always agreed upon. Fundamentalism is about doctrine, those practices that get added and taken away over time to suit people’s needs, resulting in folks holding on to those doctrines and insisting that salvation can only be achieved by them. Yes, there are things we universally agree upon in order to be part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—the historic authority of bishops, the Truth of God in Trinity, the legitimacy of the Sacraments, that’s all dogma. But where the altar stands, or whether or not I chant or use incense, or whether you kneel or stand during the Eucharistic Prayer, that’s doctrine, and that don’t matter. In his letter, James warns his readers against focusing on the things that don’t matter. They are more concerned with the pomp and circumstance of their own worship and forget that, as James puts it, real religion, real worship of God lies in the heart and how we treat one another. We can sing songs and pray prayers all we want, but if we aren’t genuinely caring about each other, what’s the point? That’s what it means to worship in spirit and in truth. James’ congregation coulda been full of Pharisees. Basically, he’s saying the same thing that Salma Hayek’s Muse said in the classic movie, Dogma: “Your heart’s in the right place, but you’re brain’s gotta wake up!” That’s one of those deeper Truths.
Let’s not vilify the Pharisees. Instead, let's learn from them. Yes, our lives should be devoted to study of Scripture, to learning more and more about God and living out our faith everywhere everyday. But let’s not get so hung up on our own ways of worshipping God that we forget what true worship looks like: remembering what really matters and seeking and serving God in all persons. That's what the Pharisees and other fundamentalists forget. So let us have the grace to put our own doctrines to the side for the sake of dogma, for the sake of embracing the deeper Truths about God. Because when we embrace those truths, we pay a lot less attention to who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong, and we see one another as fellow members of the human family on the same journey. So let our hearts be stirred, let our brains wake up, and let us worship the Lord in this place and everywhere in spirit and in truth.