As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew 9:9-13).
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. (But) these you should have done, without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:1-4, 23).
Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles (and beds).) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”‘ (meaning, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:1-15).
Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16).
The Pharisees were one of the many religious groups that made up Judaism in Jesus’ day. As we read the various Gospel, it is very easy to look at them as villains, based on their interactions with Jesus. However, the Pharisees were actually a well-respected lay renewal movement that had begun about 150 b.c. As successors of the pious Jews who actively resisted paganism during the Greek occupation of Palestine in the fourth century B.C., the Pharisees sought to preserve Jewish identity by rigorously following practices that distinguished Jews from foreign peoples—practices such as circumcision, dietary laws, and purity rituals. In fact, the name “Pharisee” was derived from the Hebrew word perusim, meaning “the separated ones.”
The motive behind the Pharisees’ strict observance of Jewish rituals was very commendable. They wanted to live holy lives. However, as time went on, they tried to make the whole Jewish populace observe practices that only the priests were required to keep. Moreover, Pharisees shunned contact with those Jews who didn’t fulfill the priestly requirements, lest they contract ritual impurity from them. This, in fact, is one of the reasons why the Pharisees were scandalized when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11). Their stringent application exceeded the tenets of the Law of Moses and inclined the Pharisees toward a concern for outward appearances. Jesus had great respect for the Law and for safeguarding Jewish tradition (5:17), but he rejected the legalistic strictures of the Pharisees that laid heavy burdens on people while overlooking justice, mercy, and fidelity (23:4,23). He saw how the Pharisees were practicing an outward form of false holiness, while inwardly their hearts were far from God.
If our hearts aren’t firmly fixed on the Lord, we can fall into the same trap as the Pharisees. How easy it is to criticize those who don’t live up to our standards or our definition of holiness! During this season of Lent, we can zealously put our favorite religious practices ahead of the very truths that these practices are meant to uphold. While we may speak pious words honoring the Lord with our lips, our hearts might actually be far from him (Mark 7:6). Let’s be careful that we don’t cling so tightly to our human traditions that we end up disregarding the commandments of God (7:8).
So what are some of the essentials of true holiness? First of all it is love for God and neighbor. It also includes mercy and forgiveness, as well as justice, faithfulness, and generosity. I believe the Lord wants us to focus on these essentials and not get sidetracked. Remember: holiness is not just a matter of external observances, but of the interior disposition of the heart (Matthew 23:27-28).
“Lord Jesus, during this grace-filled Lenten Season, don’t let me get caught up just in outward observances, but allow them to transform my heart and mind and keep them set on you and your will for my life. I want to be holy as you are holy.”
(Maurice Blumberg was the founding Executive Director of the National Fellowship of Catholic Men (http://www.nfcmusa.org/), and is currently a Trustee. He is also the Director of Partner Relations for Partners in Evangelism, (http://www2.wau.org/partners/), a Ministry to the Military and Prisoners for The Word Among Us. Maurice can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
[Many thanks to The Word Among Us (http://www.wau.org/) for allowing me to adapt some material from daily meditations in their monthly devotional magazine. Used with permission.]
Questions for Reflection/Discussion by Catholic Men
1. As the article states, it is easy to consider the Pharisees the villains of the Gospels. Were you surprised to know that they were well-respected at the time of Jesus? Where do you think they went wrong in their zeal to be holy?
2. Why do you think Jesus condemned the Pharisees so harshly?
3. Have you ever fallen into the same trap as the Pharisees in trying to be holy? In what ways?
4. How would you describe the difference between false holiness and true holiness?
5. What additional steps can you take, as you continue your Lenten practices, to grow in true holiness?
6. If you are in a men’s group, pray for one another at the end of your meeting that each of you would experience a growth in holiness during Lent (and after Lent). Use the prayer at the end of the article as a starting point.