While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
The political debates continue. There is one party that consistently receives bad press, sometimes unfairly. The Pharisees. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were not inherently bad or insincere people. Quite to the contrary, they were exceedingly devout, earnest, righteous Jews – convinced they were righteous and right – and they practiced their faith as if their life and the life of generations to come depended on it. The Pharisees were constitutionalists. And their constitution was the Law of Moses, both the written Law and a second, the oral Law, believed to also derive from Moses. This second Law had come out of their long period of exodus, when they were exiled from their land and their Temple worship, having to make all kinds of principled decisions and practices in a foreign place. This oral Law is what the Gospel according to Mark calls “the Sayings of the Fathers,” which were intended to be a “fence for the Law,” guarding it against violation.
Pharisees were rigorous in their observance of the Sabbath and feast days, of tithing, of dietary practices. They believed that bad things happened to bad people; they believed in angels and archangels, in the bodily resurrection of the dead, in the coming of a Messiah and the ingathering of God’s faithful at the end of time. Pharisees were virtuous in their single-minded devotion to God. Every day they devoted eight hours to study and meditation on the Law, another eight hours to work for their family’s survival, and another eight hours for rest. They had a very clear rule of life, and their witness was both popular and compelling, as is often true with very conservative movements. When Jesus began his public ministry he was nearly 30 years old, quite an elderly man in first-century Palestine. He most likely had practiced his life as Pharisee. Given his beliefs, and given that he was not a priest, he was certainly not a Sadducee. And given how much Jesus enjoyed dinner parties and the company of women, he was certainly not an Essene, which was a very rigorous Jewish monastic community in the desert. (Perhaps his cousin, John the Baptist, was an Essene.)
If indeed Jesus had been a Pharisee, this gives us some insight into the Gospel lesson appointed for this evening: why Jesus would be invited to and would accept this dinner invitation and others to a Pharisee’s table, and why the interaction is quite affable. Jesus does not wash his hands before the meal, and his Pharisee host expresses amazement, not scorn or judgment.
Now just a word about handwashing. I was taught by my mother to always wash my hands before eating, and I’ll bet I’m not here alone in that. But that was about physical hygiene. The Pharisees’ practice of washing hands before a meal – and oftentimes between courses in the meal, and after the meal – also had to do with a kind of hygiene, but this was spiritual hygiene so that one remained pure and not defiled. And spiritually soiled you would likely be having come from a marketplace or from a crowd of people, were you to have unwittingly touched any unclean person or thing. You couldn’t be too safe. Before a meal, Pharisees, as a matter of principle, would have at least washed their hands, immersing them up to the elbow before eating, if not having bathed completely. Doing so would prevent ritual impurity from being transferred from their hands to their food, rendering the food impure, which would then defile them personally.
An ever-higher level of outward purity was the lens through which they saw life. If indeed Jesus had been raised as a Pharisee, this would explain his access to Pharisees, his insight into their practices, the welcome and measure of support he found from at least some in the Pharisaic community, and his utter exasperation at their missing the point of it all. Jesus decries the Pharisees’ keeping up appearances, meanwhile their inattentiveness to what was going on inside their souls – their arrogance, their damning judgment of those not like them, their greed, their indifference to the poor and needy. They are more concerned with external piety and their reputation for holiness than for justice and mercy. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hopelessly overwhelming people with impossible-to-keep laws, living in the past and not present, meanwhile missing the point of it all. Jesus ends up calling the Pharisees heartless legalists and hypocrites. The Greek hypokritēs means an actor, and the name “Pharisee” came to mean someone who is over-scrupulous and casuistic, which was particularly exasperating to Jesus.
The Pharisees knew very well the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s straight from the Law: the Book of Leviticus. The Pharisee would say, I do love my neighbor. This (pure) person here on my right, this (pure) person here on my left I love. Too little love, says Jesus. Everyone is your neighbor. We are indeed a chosen people, but chosen not to exclude people in God’s defense but to love people on God’s behalf. All people. Everyone is a neighbor. Everyone belongs. Jesus trumps the Pharisees’ preoccupation with purity with a call to mercy. Jesus and his followers intentionally and indiscriminately associate with those branded as the most notorious of sinners – the shunned, sometimes “invisible people,” ranging from prostitutes, tax collectors and shepherds, to women who were “ritually unclean” because of childbirth or their monthly period, to people born of a different race, of a different type, of a different religion. Jesus and his followers eat with them, touch them, even sleep under the roofs of their houses, in every way identifying with them. Jesus sees everyone as “children of God.”
We could say, there ends the story. The Pharisaic party eventually dies out. It’s significant, though, that this and other accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees were remembered, and they found their way into the canon of Scripture. Why? Surely not because these stories give a running account of Jesus’ interaction with various people – those who revered him and those scorned and entrapped him. It is that, but more importantly the Pharisees’ legacy easily lives on, most dangerously among people who are pious and principled, thems like us.
Many of the Pharisees’ practices of piety would seem terribly antiquated, maybe repugnant, to us; however the symbolic act of handwashing may still be rife with meaning. And by that, I mean the temptation to wash my hands, for you to wash your hands of other people, people with whom we are in disagreement, people with whom we are in principled disagreement about their principles, to the point where we could shun them or curse them. It’s to move beyond a disagreement of someone’s principles, or preferences, or practices, to a cursing or condemning of them as a person. It’s to cross a line to defame the essence of a person with whom we are in principled disagreement. I find the language of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi so compelling when describing those who had imprisoned them for so many, many years. Both Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi call their captors their “teachers” and their “neighbors,” all-the-while disagreeing with their actions, but not desecrating the dignity of their persons.
So we hear Jesus call us to bless and not curse, and St. Paul, the sometime-Pharisee, says the same. The act of cursing, of washing our hands of another is estranging. It not only separates us from this other person; it separates us from God. If God is at the center, we want to be moving inward to that center. It’s like spokes on a wheel: as we come closer to the center, we come closer to others, who are also bound toward that center. And that is the point of it for all eternity: Jesus’ intention of gathering around himself the children of God – all of us – from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Here is a most radical practice during a time of political turbulence in our own country and in so many troubled places around our world. Pray for your enemies. Pray for your enemies: people, because of their principles or preferences or practices you find abhorrent, and from whom you could so easily wash your hands and curse. Pray for your enemies. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” It is a tall order, to pray in such a way, but it is co-operating with what Jesus gave his life, praying for one another on earth as it shall be in heaven. Pray for your enemies. Bless, do not curse them. Pray for your enemies. If you were to ask, where to start? Start with three. Pray for three enemies. How long? Pray until you begin to sense the ice melting in your soul, the beginning of the flow of compassion. Keep it up. Love will come. Love will surely come.
 This according to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. in The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, (Doubleday, 1981), p. 581.
 The Order of Carmelites – www.ocarm.org/lectio – on Luke 11:37-41.
The New Testament scholar, Raymond E. Brown, S.S., states that most frequently Jesus has been identified as a Pharisee. See An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997), p. 80. Brown quotes H. Falk in Jesus the Pharisee (Paulist, 1985), who sees Jesus as a Pharisee of the Hillel persuasion, bitterly opposed by other Pharisees of the Shammai persuasion.
 Luke 7:36; 14:1.
 Leviticus 11:13.
 Raymond Brown writes that the Acts of the Apostles do not mention the Pharisees as opposed to the followers of Jesus; and has Gamaliel the Pharisee advocating tolerance for them (22:3). Offering examples of other movements that failed, Gamaliel summarizes the situation, “If this work is from human beings, it will fail; if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow it.” Gamaliel’s advice carries the day. Although the apostles are beaten, they are released; and tacitly the Sanhedrin adopts the policy of leaving them alone as they continue every day to preach Christ publicly and privately (Luke 5:42). Acts 22:3 presents Paul as having studied with this great teacher of the Law (Gamaliel) who is depicted here as a fair-minded man. Later Acts 23:6-9 has the Pharisees supporting tolerance for Paul over and against the Sadducees. (Brown, p. 293) And it was Pharisees who warned Jesus about Herod’s desire to kill him (Luke 13:31).
 Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., in Meeting St. Luke today; Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message (Loyola Press, 2009), p. 39.
 Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:29.
 Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14.
 Revelation 5:9.
 Quoted from The SSJE Rule of Life, chapter 25: “The Practice of Intercession”
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