The Attack of the Pharisees

Criticizing and condemning others is simple; as easy as falling off a log. Into a swamp.

The Scripture

Mark 7
told by Deborah

When some Pharisees and religious scholars came from Jerusalem to see Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating without first washing their hands.

So they asked him, “Why don’t your disciples live according to our tradition, but eat with defiled hands?” He answered them, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was telling God’s own truth about you when he said: ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but ignore Me in their hearts; so I will ignore their prayers and offerings. They teach human dictates as dogma.’ You,” he told them, “forsake the instructions of God and cling to human tradition.”

Then he summoned the crowd and said to them, “Listen, everybody! And take this to heart: what defiles a person isn’t what goes in, but what comes out.”

When he went back into the house with his disciples, they asked him about the parable.

He looked at them in disbelief, “You mean to say that you don’t get it, either? Don’t you see that whatever food goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and from there passes through the intestines and ends up in the sewer?” (Some thought he was only talking about food.)

And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from the inside, from within the human heart, that evil intentions come: contempt, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, lies, envy, intemperance, slander, egotism, folly. All these evils come from within, and those are what defile a person.”

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
September 3, 2018

Harsh Words from the Lord

fierce Jesus“You hypocrites!”

Jesus speaks these harsh words — and we’re all brought to sharp attention. This isn’t the sort of Good News language that we’re accustomed to hearing from the Lord. What is going on?

It began with a comment from the Pharisees that seems innocent enough at first hearing. The Jerusalem contingent had come on a fact-finding mission to Jesus’ community, and they noticed that the disciples were neglecting a custom that they expected all Jews to observe, that of washing their hands before eating, and so they asked: “Hey, Jesus, what’s up with that?”

Their question unleashes a storm in Jesus; he calls them hypocrites and immediately summons the crowd to an important teaching: “Listen up, everybody! It’s not what goes into you that matters, but what comes out.”

And the first thing that had come out of the mouths of the Pharisees was criticism.

They didn’t say anything about the Jesus Community’s works of charity and compassion; they didn’t notice the people who were being cared for and comforted; they didn’t see the hopeful faces of those who were gathered together. They were only looking for something to condemn and, having found it, they could now return home, happily self-satisfied that they were better than this motley assortment of Galileans.

The Old is New Again

The Torah teaches care for the ill, the elderly, and those in need, commitment to justice, love of neighbor and of God: the prophets insisted on these things time and again; the Pharisees knew it well. They could have been doing these things in Jerusalem, instead they took a field trip to the provinces — not to inquire and learn, but to scorn and dismiss what Jesus was teaching.

The simplicity of the community and lack of sophistication among the Lord’s followers was a joke and a scandal; so unlike the elegant tapestries and careful rituals in the Temple. Here, among the hopelessly ignorant, the Pharisees felt infinitely superior: “Look: they don’t even wash their hands!”

Of course hand washing was not The Most Important Thing. They knew that perfectly well; they had been taught what was right … but the Pharisees found it easy and pleasant to point out the failings of others and, in so doing, pump up themselves. After all, they were the good guys, the bright guys, the right guys — and these people were clearly in the wrong.


There’s nothing as annoying as sanctimonious, self-righteous jerks. Thank goodness we’ve got the Pharisees to kick around. Imagine if Jesus had been talking to us!

Constant Criticism

Criticism is easy. Anybody can do it, and do it well. If we weren’t already adept at trash talking, we would certainly have learned it from our culture. Politicians, the media, memes, music, and movies celebrate condemning and cutting other people down (often literally). And it’s such fun! Mocking and laughing at others …. what harm can it do? After all, we’re in the right.

inflated egoScorn and smirking serve no useful purpose. Gossip and innuendoes are as so much hissing and spitting like the Snake in the Garden; inflating our egos, distorting our sense of self. While we glower at our enemies, ticking off their many imagined wrongs, we are conveniently, comfortably distracted from our own sins and shortcomings!

Talk is cheap, but it can be powerful. It can hurt and harm and even destroy — and the one who suffers the greatest damage isn’t our opponent, but ourself.

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
      ~ Malachy McCourt

A steady diet of hatred and hostility distorts and twists our lives. It creates in us an attitude of resentment and suspicion; we train our minds to imagine the worst, we harden our hearts, we become closed down, closed off; isolated from others. Our souls begin to ossify, our spirits lose their sparkle. We become the center of a cold and lonely universe: just us and the people we despise.

Enemies to the Left of Us, Enemies to the Right!

Ah, our worthy enemies! What would we do without them? Each day we chant litanies of their failures and their faults, we recite their sins of omission and commission, we scorn their lies, despise their lives, and sneer at their souls. We condemn their stubbornness, their wicked deeds, their vile heartlessness. It’s a filthy, dirty, one-sided slinging match, as we wade neck-deep in muck. But golly, we’re in the right!

Enthralled by our enemies, we become more concerned with polishing our own sense of righteousness than with our call to do what is right. We spend hours immersed in hatred, anger, and resentment rather than in our holy Work of compassion, kindness, and prayer. In the midst of it all, some may have cause to wonder: who is it, actually, who is heartless, merciless, and unkind?

a squirrel!

It’s comforting to find fault in another direction, and a great way to distract our attention (Look! A squirrel!). We never have any difficulty in pointing our fingers at those awful others; but as for looking in the mirror, confronting ourselves face to face … suddenly the task becomes much less enjoyable and much more challenging.

We may talk a good game, praising the Gospel with our lips — but do we cherish it in our hearts? Do we honor it in the living of our lives?

That Jesus; why did he have to talk about Pharisees and hypocrites anyway?

But What About the Bad Guys?

But what about the bad guys? They aren’t mere figments of our imagination, they are real: ghastly, beastly characters who seek to do harm; to tear down rather than build up; to demean, diminish, and damage: real people who may have hurt us personally. Evildoers cannot — must not — be ignored.

The temptation is always to “fight fire with fire.” But, in so doing, we become not the contrary, but the twin. When a soldier is killed, it doesn’t matter if the bullet came from an enemy rifle or “friendly fire,” he’s dead all the same.

We do not refute evil by engaging in it.

Our purpose is different — our goal is different. We seek not to destroy, but to heal and transform; to bless and not to curse. That’s what Christians are called to do.

And it’s often damnably hard work.

dog straining on leashWhen every ounce of our body is straining, like an angry dog on the end of its leash, “Lemme at him!” instead we must turn away from violence and vengeance, and speak words of peace and compassion and reasonable hope. We are to offer alternatives, not insults. We are to seek to understand, to, in any way possible, bring about a new and better way — and to bless even those who hate us.

Jesus said, “And I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
      ~ Matthew 5:44

Our Very Own, Personal Critics

The story is told of the ancient philosopher who was seen slowly, sadly making his way through the marketplace, a black band of mourning fluttering on his sleeve. One of his students rushed up, “Oh, master! What sad loss has struck you?” The old man looked up with red, tear-rimmed eyes, “Today my harshest critic has died.”

Perhaps that is one of the best ways to understand the challenges of dealing with enemies and temptations to do evil: as critics (perhaps Pharisees?) who look askance at our every word and deed. Maybe we can learn to greet them, even appreciate them, as close observers who keep watch to see if we are truly who we say we are, and Who it is we follow.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,


Suggested Spiritual Excercises

When have you behaved like a snooty “Pharisee”?

Who might serve as your harshest critic?