This morning’s reading hits a bit different than usual. It’s a diatribe directed at the Pharisees and Jewish leaders, and it was one I used to enjoy reading a lot, but today it feels a bit different.
There is an old quote, and I don’t remember who said it, but it went something like, “It’s always nice to get a demand for a bill you’ve already paid because it means you can sit down and write a really nasty letter.” As a young person, I think this was the source of a lot of pleasure of reading the passage—there’s something in our humanity that enjoys seeing people get told off—when we think they deserve it.
As a youngster I was also always told that we should be examining our consciences to make sure that we weren’t like the Pharisees, so really we would have the sort of schadenfreude I felt, we should feel like we, too, were being told off and act accordingly. It was hard to take this admonition seriously, especially when you were being told to behave yourself like a Pharisee the other 51 weeks of every year.
The passage hits different now because I can look back on my younger years from the position of middle age and see that I really was a Pharisee, but I can also (at least partly) see the reason. I was not good at sports, and I was not popular, and I turned to religion to help me feel like I was good at something. I might not have a lot to offer, but at least I could be morally pure. It was my desire for approval and a longing to feel like I had some standing or position within my peer group that drove a lot of my posturing. I can have compassion for that young person who was trying to find a sense of feeling good enough, so Jesus’ strong (and lengthy!) words against the Pharisees disturb me more now than they used to.
The thing is, even if the Pharisees’ behaviour was born of their need for approval, their behaviour was totally offside. They were basically making themselves feel better at the expense of making everyone else feel worse. My sense of Jesus’ words here is that He is saying, “Hey, everyone is dealing with needs for love and approval, but you guys are pathological in the ways you’re dealing with it. Maybe take a moment to think about how other people are feeling.” Looking around you and seeing the impact you are having seems key.