In Christian hands the Pharisees have always been an easy target. The way the Gospel writers customarily depict them doesn’t leave much room for a sympathetic reading. Abstemious, pinch-faced, high-handed hypocrites and know-it-alls. Leaving aside the question of whether these Pharisaic depictions are fair to the true Pharisaic tradition (which I think they likely are not), it is the perception the Gospel writers offer that I want to focus on for a second.
After two thousand years of theologically sanctioned piling on, pharisaical has become synonymous with ritualistic, self-righteous, hypocrisy--in particular, among religious types who regularly claim to believe more than they actually live out. How do you not feel superior to that, right?
Loathing religious hypocrisy offers the satisfying advantage of being ill-disposed toward a shortcoming from which most of us feel certain only other people suffer, but from which we ourselves have built up through force of will and strength of character a rather robust immunity. In that sense, hypocrisy is the ethical equivalent of literary irony--a defect in me everybody else sees but about which I remain blithely unsuspecting.
Bad stuff hypocrisy. But there’s another part of pharisaism I find equally objectionable--the temptation to care about the rules not even so much as an end in themselves, but as an instrumental good in helping me to burnish my public reputation as morally pure. In other words, the rules may or may not accomplish anything of practical value, apart from allowing me to point to a stake in the ground that demarcates my own faultlessness. My observance of the rules, therefore, becomes merely a way to broadcast the fact that I’m the kind of person who follows rules, regardless of whether or not my rule-following makes the world a better place. So, yay me!
Jesus points up the self-aggrandizing nature of rule-following-as-personal-brand when he responds to Pharisaic criticism, after healing a disabled woman on the Sabbath--healing on the Sabbath being a practice generally forbidden at the time. He says, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15–16). That is to say, “Seriously? You would begrudge this woman restoration to a flourishing life in the community, just to retain your own sense of personal rectitude? It’s more virtuous to conspicuously demonstrate your piety--even if it comes at this suffering woman’s expense--than to show a little compassion to someone who’s lived for so long on the outside looking in? That’s your idea of excellence in morality? Nice. And to beat everything, you’re going to do this all in the name of religion? Not with my blessing.”
I bring all this up because I get the same kind of religious heebie-jeebies when I read about the proliferation of state laws passed in the name of religious freedom (Indiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, etc.)--laws, let’s be clear, the purpose of which is to further disadvantage people who’ve for too many years already had to sit at the back of the cultural bus. Urban municipalities pass fairness laws to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, only to have state governments overrule those laws.
Queer folks in these states, who because of the Supreme Court have the right to fully and legally express the depths of their love and commitment for one another in marriage, must now contend with the fact that pursuing that right can get them fired, kicked out of their apartments, told to leave their favorite restaurant or park.
Transgender people, seeking nothing more than a little dignity, must now subject themselves to the potential violence and humiliation of using restrooms that do not match their gender identities.
And for what?
So that a subset of religious people can protect the privilege of appearing morally pure. Without regard to how the fear of such bigotry affects the lives of LGBTQ people--let alone any actual bigotry--the desire to be seen to be moral apparently trumps the requirement of actually being moral--if by moral one means, as Jesus apparently did (see, Matthew 7:12), treating people the way one wishes to be treated.
So I can hear Jesus say, “Seriously? You would begrudge LGBTQ people restoration to a flourishing life in the community, just to retain your own sense of personal rectitude? It’s more virtuous to conspicuously demonstrate your piety--even if it comes at the expense of these people’s suffering--than to show a little compassion to folks who’ve lived for so long on the outside looking in? That’s your idea of excellence in morality? Nice. And to beat everything, you’re going to do this all in the name of religion? Not with my blessing.”
Look, kicking vulnerable people in the teeth while calling it love doesn’t change the fact that it’s not love--which is bad enough. But kicking vulnerable people in the teeth so you can smugly tell yourself and your religious friends that your morality remains unsullied makes you the very kind of Pharisee by which Jesus was so regularly disappointed.
See, for instance, Shaye J.D. Cohen ↩