Many who are faithful to the Church and Her Magisterium are mocked by their enemies as being a “pharisee”. Fortunately for the faithful, and unfortunately for the enemy, the term pharisee is being used incorrectly.
What is a Pharisee?
The Concise Catholic Dictionary of 1943 (CCD) states that Pharisees are:
“Those Jews who in our Lord’s time scrupulously observed the Jewish law and refused to have communication with the gentiles; the proud and self-righteous.”
Now, when the term “Pharisee” is thrown around, it is usually used to mock a certain point of view. Its used to mock it, ridicule it and silence it. Nobody wants to be a Pharisee. We know through Scripture that all they did was follow the rules, appear to be Holier Than Thou and had Jesus killed. They aren’t good people.
The people who are called this vile and ugly word, may in fact be devoted to the rules, the doctrine and the teachings of the Church. However, the are far from being smug, “Holier Than Thou” and are usually humble people who recognize that they too are sinners and in need of God’s love and mercy. It is important to keep in mind that there are always some of those who ruin it for everyone else. We are talking about the average traditionalist.
The Pharisees are the enemy in the Gospels. Every time they are mentioned, it is to prove a lesson to them. The Pharisees externally appeared to be “saints” but interiorly were wretched, unrepentant sinners. They cared more about their place of power, as opposed to their place in the Kingdom of God.
Traditionalists, from my experience, are not in any way Pharisees. They hold true to the Dogmas, Doctrines, and teachings of the Church. If the Pharisees did this, then this is the only area in which there is overlap between Pharisees and Traditionalists. Where they differ, is that the Traditionalist recognizes that he is a sinner. The Traditionalist tries his hardest to live his life as Christ and the Church has asked of him. Granted, he may be stern in what he believes, but that is only because the teachings of Jesus are not negotiable. What Jesus has taught goes and what the Church teaches in congruence with her spouse, is also the law of the land.
Pharisees in Scripture
Jesus mentions the Pharisees in Scripture numerous times. Often it is to drive a point home. God does not want you lukewarm, that is, following his law when those around you are looking, and ignoring it when no one is around. He doesn’t want you to follow it out of pride either. The error of the Pharisees is that they think that because they are following the law, that they are saved and because you are not following the law, you are not saved.
Jesus points out that no, those who are not following the law, but repent are more likely to be saved than those who pretend to follow the law, but are unrepentant.
“But what think you? A certain man had two sons; and coming to the first, he said: Son, go work today in my vineyard. And he answering, said: I will not. But afterwards, being moved with repentance, he went. And coming to the other, he said in like manner. And he answering, said: I go, Sir; and he went not. Which of the two did the father’s will? They say to him: The first. Jesus saith to them: Amen I say to you, that the publicans and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the publicans and the harlots believed him: but you, seeing it, did not even afterwards repent, that you might believe him.” Matthew 21:28-32 Douay-Rheims
Jesus also condemns the false traditions as well and that its not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside. These traditions were created by the Pharisees before them. The Traditions of the Church are given by her authority.
After he 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. Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb, but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God. These you should have done, without overlooking the others. Woe to you Pharisees! You love the seat of honor in synagogues and greetings in marketplaces. Woe to you! You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.” Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.” And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them. Woe to you! You build the memorials of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building. Therefore, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles; some of them they will kill and persecute’ in order that this generation might be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who died between the altar and the temple building. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood! Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.” When he left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him and to interrogate him about many things, for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say. Luke 11:37-54 NAB
Jesus makes it very clear though, that we are to follow the “rules” and Traditions that He has given us numerous times as well (c.f. Matthew 19:16-30 and John 13:31-35).
It is clear that when Jesus talks about the Pharisees, that we must be repentant of our sins and we must follow whatever Commandments that He has given to us. That means that anywhere in Scripture in which Jesus tells us to do something, we are to do it. Because He is God, we know that that is the Truth. There is nothing wrong with following the teachings, doctrines and traditions of the Catholic faith. There is nothing wrong with asking others to do it and making sure that our priests and religious follow them as well, as long as it is done in love. The problem is when we follow only the rules to appear better than those around us. If it is out of general love for God, then it is perfectly acceptable to ensure that our brethren follow the traditions.
Not All Pharisees Hated Jesus
You read that correctly, not all of the Pharisees were bad and wanted Jesus to be killed. As a matter of fact, we read that after Jesus had cured the man born blind and sent him to the temple to wash his eyes, that there was disagreement between the Pharisees. We read:
Some therefore of the Pharisees said: This man is not of God, who keepeth not the sabbath. But others said: How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them. John 9:16 Douay-Rheims
Jesus cured the blind man on the sabbath, and some of the Pharisees (the bad ones at least) felt that Jesus’ curing of this man violated the sabbath. Meanwhile, other Pharisees (the good ones) believed that if you are doing something that is good on the sabbath, than you can not be sinning. There was a definite division among the Pharisees. This demonstrates that not all were bad and that more than likely, a percentage of the Pharisees thought that Jesus was God and followed His teachings. We also know of the Pharisee Nicodemus. We read:
And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night, and said to him: Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God; for no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him. John 3:1-2 Douay-Rheims
It is an important distinction to highlight the good Pharisees. The Pharisees were generally bad, but to allow the good Pharisees to be lumped in with the bad is uncharitable to those who did follow Jesus (assuming they later converted). It also weakens the analogy that traditionalists are all “bad” as this is what the comparison is used for.
Every group has its members who are not good and give a bad name for the rest of them. Just like there were bad Pharisees, there will also be bad Traditionalists. The important distinction is to see how the Traditionalist lives his life as a Catholic to determine if he is like a Pharisee or not. The Pharisees aren’t only those who followed the law to a t, but those who exteriorly followed the law to a t when people were around to witness it. This is a clear sense of pride. But, when they weren’t around they were corrupt and interiorly were diseased and unclean. To lump those on the “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-traditional” side as pharisees, is an assumption and a judgment that you know better what is going on interiorly in their hearts, which Jesus warns against (c.f. Luke 6:37).
Most of the people I know may follow the law to a t, but it is out of love for God and love for others in helping them get to Heaven. If they are actually living out their faith, both when people are around and aren’t, then to call them a Pharisee is an error and an uncharitable error that only goes to create divisions within the Church. I don’t see how that helps anything.