Learning from the Pharisees
October 12, 2021 (readings)
- Tuesday of the Twenty-Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
- Fr. John Bartunek, LC
After Jesus had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.”
Opening Prayer: You have given me this new day, Lord. You have given it as a fresh chance to know you better, to love you better, to follow you better. I turn to you right now so as to give you praise by listening to your word, and so as to receive the grace I need to battle for your Kingdom joyfully.
The Essence of Christianity: Jesus and the Pharisees were always getting into scrapes. The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Israel at the time of Christ. They were the ones who knew the divine law best, and who had made a radical decision to follow it even in the minutest details. Their desire to be pure and exemplary was a good desire, but unfortunately, it had led them to a place of spiritual pride, of spiritual self-sufficiency. They believed that entering into a right relationship with God required above all external obedience to certain ritualistic norms (like the washings St. Luke refers to in this passage). By following those norms perfectly, they considered themselves in a perfect relationship with God. This made many of them deaf to Christ’s message because the essence of Christ’s message was not about obedience to norms, but about relationship. For Jesus, the numerous ritualistic ordinances of the Old Testament are all summarized in his two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Love is a relational virtue, not a ritualistic virtue. Certainly rituals–like certain vocal prayers, or like the sacraments–can contribute mightily and objectively to the health of our relationship with God, but without our hearts engaged honestly and affectionately with the real person of Jesus, we will simply miss the spiritual boat.
A Solid Pharisaical Insight: One thing the Pharisees understood better than most Christians in our day and age was the importance of purification from sin. In fact, throughout the Gospels, and the whole New Testament, really, Jesus is continually calling us to repentance, to a turning away from the lusts and greed and sloth of our fallen human nature in order to welcome his mercy and his transforming grace. Many of the Pharisees’ rituals were directed towards purifications, toward putting themselves in a state in which they would be in harmony with God’s own desires and so be open to receiving God’s saving grace. This is a healthy attitude for all of us. Even though we have been wounded by original sin, we are still capable of turning our lives toward God or away from God. But this turning doesn’t happen primarily through external rituals, as the Pharisees thought, but through our moral choices. This is why Jesus says that giving alms is a path to interior purification. Giving alms is a term used to refer to any sincere act of love towards our neighbors who are in need. Those acts turn our hearts toward God; they put our hearts in harmony with God’s own heart, which is a heart burning with infinite love. When, on the other hand, we willingly turn away from our neighbor in need, we turn our hearts away from God’s heart, closing ourselves off from receiving his light and his grace.
Obedience and Peace: The liturgical calendar for today remembers St. John XIII, the pope who called the Second Vatican Council. His motto as bishop, and later as pope, was three words in Latin: obediencia et pax, obedience and peace. The path to interior peace is obedience to God’s will. This motto reminds us of Jesus’s own phrase given to us in the Our Father: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. Christ’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of peace, joy, and meaning. And making that Kingdom present in our lives and the lives of those around us requires nothing more than living in obedience to the law of the King—to the commandments, the beatitudes, the teaching and example of Christ and his Church. In our secular world, this praise for the virtue of obedience may strike a discordant note. The postmodernism of today’s culture minimizes a humble recognition of objective truth and maximizes an arrogant embrace of subjective autonomy. It encourages us to create our own meaning as if human nature were not something we had received. The invitation to invent our own meaning appeals to our fallen nature, within which there always lurks a desire to be godlike, unlimited by the parameters of creaturehood and finitude. But whether we accept them or not, those parameters are real. We can no more disobey the objective moral order and expect to be morally satisfied than we can disobey the laws of biology and expect to be physically healthy. Let us learn from today’s saint, and give obedience to God’s will its proper place in our lives so that we experience the peace–of conscience, of soul, and of mind–that God wants for us.
Conversing with Christ: Dear Lord, you were the freest, most balanced person who ever walked this earth. I want to share in your freedom, to experience the peace that comes from living fully in your love. But I need your help. I am just like the Pharisees: I want to control everything and have absolute clarity once and for all. Instead, you invite me to live in the dynamism of discipleship, following you day by day and gradually discovering more and more of your goodness and truth. That journey takes trust and faith. Increase my faith and my trust, Lord; free me from the narrow confines of my insecurities and arrogance.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will make a point of reaching out to someone in need, “giving alms” as Jesus admonishes.
For Further Reflection: Journal of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. John XXIII.
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