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What We Can Learn from the Pharisees

by Fr. Benedict Solomon, O.Praem.


“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisees were a group of men who made a profession out of an exact observance of the law, and because of their strict external observances, the people admired and respected them. So we as Christians, religious and lay, should see the importance and value of being consistent in the external observances of our way of life as a witness to others.

Without consistency in external observance of rules and propriety, we aren’t giving a sign of the faith that we are supposed to have. The Pharisees at least earned the respect of the people by following the law. Their problem was that they sacrificed the spirit of the law for the letter. They didn’t keep the law out of faith and love, and even chose less important laws over the more important.

But if a person doesn’t even keep the external observances of their way of life, what can we say except that they don’t have the spirit or the letter. If a person is at least trying to follow the spirit and letter, but falls out of weakness, or at least without contempt for the law, he is moving toward perfection, and his righteousness surpasses the Pharisees.

But if we have contempt for the new law or our way of life as though it didn’t apply to us, we are worse than the Pharisees. So Jesus teaches us how to really follow the commandments. He explains that “You shall not kill” refers to anger in our hearts for others, and it also refers to anger in words. Following the letter and the spirit involves loving our neighbor in thought, word, and action.

But if we look at the first reading from Ezekiel, the bigger picture is about an attitude of forgiveness. When we sin mortally against God, we lose sanctifying grace, the virtues, and the gifts, but we also lose the merits of all of our past good acts. But God is so good that if we repent, He not only gives us sanctifying grace and the virtues, but also all of the merits of our previous good acts.

What if we forgave others in this way—not only saying we forgive them, not only reluctantly refraining from showing dislike or disappointment visibly on our faces, but actually treating the person as though they had never offended us? God forgives us when He knows we will offend Him again, and He still gives it as though it were the first time and last time. But we can’t help ourselves from attributing motives to other people. And then these motives we’ve rashly attributed, without knowing for certain, justify us in treating the other person as though they intentionally did something against us.

Some may even get revenge. What if we were able to forgive others when we knew they would do the same thing again? What if we could act toward them as though they hadn’t offended us and would never offend us again? Then, I think, our righteousness would far surpass that of the Pharisees, and we would be like Christ. We would actually be Christians.

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