“Do not be like the hypocrites.” Matthew 6:5
‘I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee,
but they would not dance and they wouldn’t follow me
Learning ‘Lord of the Dance’ in primary school days was a lesson in who were the good guys and who were the bad guys in the Gospel story. There was no doubt in the mind of a small schoolboy that the Scribes and the Pharisees were the bad guys; in an impressionable mind they became like pantomime figures, almost deserving boos and hisses when they made their appearances.
The Ash Wednesday Gospel might appear to confirm this impression, that those who gathered in the synagogues, those who were outwardly religious in the streets, were worthy of contempt, yet the Pharisees were not the two dimensional villains they came to be in our minds.
The Pharisees were a lay movement, a reaction to the Temple and the corruption with which it had become associated. They would have sympathised with Jesus when he drives the money changers from the Temple and declares that it has been made into a den of thieves. The Pharisees sought holiness of life and the scams being perpetrated against those who came to worship at the Temple, with people compelled to buy over-priced sacrifices with a Temple currency on which they had paid an exorbitant commission, were an antithesis of all that the Pharisees held holy.
The Pharisee ideal was to bring a Godly holiness into every aspect of human life, thus the hundreds of laws that developed to regulate every imaginable are of human existence. The aspiration was to live by all of the laws in order to draw close to God. The Pharisees were not bad people, on the contrary, they were upright, respectable good living people. They were strict in their self-discipline and strict in the discipline of their households. It would have been hard to fault their ethical standards, they would not knowingly do anything wrong, or what they perceived to be wrong.
The Pharisees dislike of Jesus arose not from their perception of him being more religious than them, but from a belief that he was behaving in an unGodly manner, that his lifestyle did not show the respect for God in the ways that they expected.
When Jesus condemns the Pharisees, he does not condemn what they do, he condemns the way that they do it. ‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them’, says Jesus to his followers. He is not critical of piety, piety is a seeking after personal holiness. He is critical of the way in which that piety is shown, in a way that was more about drawing attention to the person than about bringing glory to God. Jesus does not condemn giving alms, giving money to assist the poor and the unfortunate; what he does condemn is making a show of generosity, giving in such a way that everyone knows about it.
Even prayer had become a matter of show, something done in such a way as to draw the attention of all the passer by. Of course, Jesus would not be critical of prayer, but he is critical of those who made prayer into an occasion of self publicity, of those who sought to show everyone around how religious they were.
It was not what the Pharisees did that was at fault; it was the way that they did it. Jesus condemns them for a religion that was concerned with the outward appearances, but did not bring about a change of people’s hearts.
As we begin the season of Lent, Jesus’ words of criticism towards the Pharisees should strike home with us. Lent can often be a time of outward observances, a time of giving up things outwardly, but not being changed inwardly. How many of us will give up chocolate, or sweets, or biscuits or alcohol, and regard those things as our Lenten discipline? Perhaps it takes an effort of will to do such things, (particularly if you have a great fondness for chocolate!). To see Lent about these things and nothing deeper, is to make the mistake for which Jesus condemns the Pharisees, to imagine that certain rules of self-discipline are adequate, when God looks for something far greater and far more profound.
‘ Your Father who sees in secret will reward you’, says Jesus, if things are done privately from the heart and not publicly for attention. Lent is not about what we do, it is about the way that we do it. There is a danger in seeing the Pharisees as the villains and fail to see how like them we are.
‘They wouldn’t follow me’, say the words of the song; do we follow him? Inwardly as well as outwardly? In thought as well as in deed? In our hearts as well as in our words?