I wish I was a Pharisee

I wish I was a Pharisee and had a church filled with Pharisees.

Oh, I know. In the minds of so many, the word Pharisee means either hypocrite or a mindless follower of the rules. Yet, think of these words from the Lord Jesus: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)


Consider the righteousness of the Pharisees. Like the Orthodox, they believed not only in the written Torah, but also in oral tradition.They sought to bring the Torah into life and to understand how it could apply to the business of daily living. The Pharisees believed in social justice, in the brotherhood of man,and that above all, they were to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.This love was to find its expression in understanding the Torah and living by its principles. They sought holiness above all things.

I wish I was a Pharisee and had a church filled with Pharisees.

But what about all the negative images we find in the Gospels. Well, it seems that Jesus had friends who were Pharisees. He often dined with them and seemed quite at home with them. You see, the Pharisees believed that there were many kinds of Pharisees. The best Pharisee was one who, loving God sincerely, sought to do God’s will. The worst Pharisee was one who did all for show, to gain the esteem of those around him, and who sought to use his righteousness as a means to gain money or power. Certainly, it is the lowest kind of Pharisee that Jesus railed against.

Yet, imagine a Church filled with good Pharisees dedicated to the study of Scripture, to attendance at worship, who pray and fast devoutly, and who believe that faith is life and life is faith. It would be perfect, wouldn’t it? Well, maybe not. It seems that study, prayer, fasting, and even trying to make faith the center of all things is not enough. There is one thing that is essential, and without it, all the spiritual discipline in the world is but vanity. That essential element is repentance.

Jesus tells the story. The Pharisee is in the Temple. He is a man of piety, a man of faith, who fasts and tithes of all that he has. Yet, he never realized that spiritual discipline was meant to produce humility and repentance. Yet, his spiritual discipline had produced pride and not humility. How is it possible that a good tree can produce rotten fruit?

Then, we see the publican, a tax collector, and tax collectors were not known for their piety. Yet, with little or no piety (as the Pharisees understood it), he found repentance and humility and left the Temple justified.

We too must learn that all of our spiritual effort, all of our Orthodox disciplines-fasting, prayer, tithing, attending services is meant to create in us a broken heart. Then, having no illusions about who we are, like the publican, we will cry out for mercy and find holiness.

I wish I was a publican and had a church filled with publicans.

One Response to “I wish I was a Pharisee”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Wonderful homily, Father.

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