Christ our Lord is “meek, and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29), but he is not a “nice guy.” Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of the Scribes and Pharisees, whom he likens to “whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness” (Mt. 23:27).
Everything Jesus did and said was for our instruction and guidance. Naturally, we tend to share his repugnance to hypocrisy, and are eager to know where it is lurking in ourselves and others, so that we may pluck it out, and cast it far from us (Mt 18:9).
If we are not careful, however, confusion about what it means to be pharisaical can turn a healthy aspiration into a stumbling block to spiritual growth.
We live in an age of false humility, which teaches us that our innate desire for truth and aspiration to live virtuously is synonymous with arrogant folly.
While it is certainly true, as St. Thomas More observed, that recognizing one’s folly is the beginning of wisdom, it is also true (as he further remarked) that clinging to one’s folly when it has been exposed as such is a sure sign of pride.
To be a Pharisee is to love “to be called by men, Rabbi,” meaning “teacher.” This is to usurp the title of our one Master, Christ (Mt. 23:6-10).
Nonetheless, Christians are called to be teachers. Our Lord’s own summary of what it means to follow him stresses this: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations. . . . Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20).
Pharisees are damned for teaching, yet Christians are commanded to teach. What is the difference between one teaching and the other?
The difference is this: the Pharisees “say, and do not” (Mt. 23:3); whereas Christians are called to “do and teach” (Mt. 5:19).
The Pharisees “bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Mt. 23:4). But Christ, and his disciples, demand that we seek perfection as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48). Again, what is the difference?
The difference is that the Pharisees lay burdens upon others which they will not move with a finger of their own (Mt. 23:4), while Christ (and Christians) share the yoke of God with one another.
For our comfort, even Christ fell when carrying his cross. Failing to live up to the standards we proclaim is not hypocrisy, but humanity.
If we pretend falling is something only others do, our holiness is hollow. If we are willing to strive, fall, and get up again, we are on the path to real sanctification.
As Christians, we are not called to abandon virtue as pharisaical, but to surpass the Pharisees in virtue. This is only possible when we “do and teach” in obedience to our Lord and in conjunction with our brethren.
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