The True Poison of the Pharisees

A few years ago, I read The Name of God is Mercy.  This book is an interview Pope Francis gave about mercy.  The key thing that struck my heart from this book was the scripture passage that started it.  Pope Francis chose Luke 18: 9-14 to introduce the topic of mercy to the reader.  The passage is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Why has the use of this passage by Pope Francis stayed with me?  Because, this parable is about the disposition of the heart.  Usually, when the term mercy comes up within a conversation, it elicits ideas and thoughts about charitable action.  Yet, here is a parable about the dangers of a heart that trusts and revels itself.  In the selection of this passage our Holy Father brings us to the foundation of mercy by placing it next to its adversary.  Both attitudes vie to rule the heart.  Thus, to understand mercy we must come to understand the reality that acts against it.

A Misguided Interpretation

I believe a mistake that far too many people make is misunderstanding the Pharisees.  When the Pharisees are brought up they are depicted as men who live the law strictly and cruelly that results in the heaping of burdens laced upon their own people.  This vision of the Pharisees offers a vignette of truth.  I write vignette because this view puts the cart before the horse causing us to look over the true poison of the Pharisees.  Hence, there is a problem that arises from this interpretation of simply associating the Pharisaical heart merely with legalism.  This problematic interpretation, is a means for detractors to decry any rules, laws, or moral customs within a group that appear to be a burden for people.  A current example being the celibate life priests promise to live when ordained.  The legalistic interpretation of the Pharisaical heart, provides a path for the understanding of mercy to be about a liberation, by which, these burdens are removed through striping any social relevance or meaning from the rules, laws, and customs within a group that provide it a structure and a way of life.  If these things are burdens and burdens are bad, those that perpetuate them must be just as bad.  Thus, to remove the driving force maintaining these social structures is to lessen the overall significance of them.

The Ambiance

The parable above, however, does not lend itself specifically to that interpretation.  Within the parable we are shown two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  Socially, these men are at two different ends of the social esteem and reverence spectrum.  The Pharisee is held in high esteem by his peers, while the tax collector is not.  Jesus places both men at the temple, the place where the Presence of God dwells, the center of the spiritual universe for these men.  Both men begin to pray, and it is with this act that Jesus begins to show us what truly matters.  The Pharisee is praying with himself as the passage notes.  He starts his prayer by thanking God he is not like other men (tax collectors, adulterers, etc).  Then he praises his fasting and tithing.  The tax collector may do those actions, yet he is not seen by the Pharisee as his equal.   

Now, Jesus turns our focus to the tax collector.  The tax collector begins by not approaching God or even looking up into the skies towards the heavens.  The tax collector doesn’t speak about his good acts but professes his sinful state and need for God’s mercy.  It is to this man that Jesus contributes justification.  Why? Jesus goes on to tell the people, and us, that humility is the necessary disposition. 

First Things First 

With the selection of this passage Pope Francis appears to be pointing to the necessity of the heart in relationship to mercy.  What was the fundamental issue with the heart of the Pharisee?  The answer is found in his prayer “God, I thank you that I am not like other men …” (LK 18: 11a).  The Pharisee believed he was better than others.  That is the foundation of Pharisaism, not legalism.  The law was merely a means to justify this attitude of his heart.  Even though the Lord gave the law to His people.  The Lord still coupled it with the message for them to remember their past in Egypt (Ex. 22: 21, Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:19).  The law was given so the Lord’s chosen people would have life (Deut. 30:11-20).  It was not to make them better than other people. The attitude of superiority arose from the hearts of the Pharisees via their own violation.

Two Ways

The legalistic view of the Pharisees offers a needed, yet, non-sustaining path for mercy.  This is done by looking for oppression within social structures, along with the oppressors that craft and sustain them.  Once, these things and people are discovered they must be removed.  The act of removing being the needed manifestation of mercy.  The other way, founded upon humility, is challenging, because it calls a person to gaze at their own heart to see the darkness within it.  In that gaze the person knows they have nothing to give to God and can only declare who they are before Him.  It is in that dark-filled gaze that the person knows that he/ she is no better than any other person. From that view the humble heart sees the foundation upon which all stands- the mercy of God.

It is in humility that a heart begins to act with the mercy of God, because they are aware that their own heart is sustained by it.  The humble view is the primary way for mercy, because it is sustained by the will of God, made known through His mercy, not by human desires and understandings.  Again, the heart utterly focused primarily on the removal of legalism will always have before it the poisonous pit of legalism that it will fall into overtime.  

The Heart

With Pope Francis using this parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, I believe he is reminding us to put first things first.  It is from “… the things that proceed out of the mouth that come from the heart, that defile a man” (Mt. 15:18).  For mercy to fill the lungs of the Church once again, as Our Holy Father Pope Francis envisions, the humbling of the heart must take place.  A humbling that is realized through the acknowledgment that we all are sinners.  It is from the humble heart that the way of mercy is formed beneath the feet of the Church.  Thus, it is with the humble heart along the path of mercy that the Church can address issues, like legalism.  From this path of mercy, the Church can show that the moral is never about people justify their superiority over others.  Instead, it is about the healing salve of God’s mercy being applied where it is most needed.  

What you most seek and desire you will not find by this way of yours, nor through high contemplation, but in much humility and submission of heart. ~ St. John of the Cross (Sayings of Light of Love #40)


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3 thoughts on “The True Poison of the Pharisees

  1. Father Nicholas,
    Nice Meditation on a well-worn scripture story. I like your focus on change of heart (metanoia, anyone?) rather than legalism.

    My understanding is that the Pharisees were zealous about observing the Torah
    because they thought that if all Israelites were fully observant of the Torah then the Shekinah would return to the Temple in Jerusalem. Just to make sure they didn’t slip up and become non-observant, they engaged in “hedging”–going the extra mile by exceeding the law, such as tithing mint (not necessarily in the Torah but just making sure).

    So, no legalism is not the focus. It was really very important for the Pharisee not to be like the tax collector, because if he was that would mean he was not fully observant of the Torah. He was successful by not being like the tax collector (and other non-observant Israelites)! However, this left the Pharisee unable to show God’s mercy to the tax collector and that is the problem, no?

    Pope Francis says “Etymologically, ‘mercy’ derives from misericordi[a], which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness.”. I really like this description of mercy because it is so relational. I open my heart to my wretchedness and, as a result, I can receive God’s mercy.
    I open my heart to others’ wretchedness and I can participate in God’s mercy to them through my relationship with them. However, I need to be able to “open” my heart. This is requires humbling, which often is accompanied; yes, I think humility comes from humbling because I only open my heart out of need. When I am suffering humiliation I have the chance to seek and find God’s mercy.

    And, then, I can offer God’s mercy to others.

    1. Thank you for your awesome reply. There is a lot there I need to think and pray about. I have a new article coming out soon on the def. of mercy by Pope Francis focusing how how it is twisted by people wishing to make it a license.

  2. You’re welcome. I have interest in the relationship between metanoia, opening my heart to others, and redemptive suffering (JPII Salvifici Dolores).

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