Throughout the Gospels, the Pharisees are presented as being antagonistic to Jesus and his message. We generally think of them as vain, conceited and hypocritical; the term ‘pharisee’ today has negative connotations. So it may come as a surprise to know that the Pharisees were actually the ‘good people’ of that day. They were intelligent, righteous, and observant of the Law in every mechanical detail. In fact they were so righteous, they became self-righteous. They felt they had no need of God’s mercy or forgiveness, for they performed well all that was required of them. Observance of ritual saved them, or so they thought. In the episode presented today, the Pharisees take up something small – the custom of cleansing oneself before sitting down to a meal – and badger the disciples about why Jesus exempts himself from these legal niceties. How can he be good, if he neglects these details of the Law, is what they say. In reply, Jesus draw a distinction between what ‘goes into a man’ through the food he eats, and what ‘comes out of a man’ from the thoughts he thinks. Food of itself cannot contaminate you, he says, and the distinction made between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food is artificial. Food which is tainted can at worst give you a stomach-ache, but it leaves your character intact. But what can harm you are the thoughts which fester in your mind: lustful desires, plans for revenge, the ambition to grab what isn’t yours, the urges to violence. All these urges lead to evil action. So it’s what comes out of a man’s heart which can hurt him even more than the kind of food he eats. The Pharisees fastened on the external action, the ritual. Jesus looks at the interior disposition, the attitude. It’s no use pretending to perform intricate rituals when one’s heart is far from God. This is why the word ‘pharisee’ today describes the consummate hypocrite, the one who pretends to piety while his heart is consumed with evil.
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