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Jesus and the Pharisees: an extract from Ross Douthat’s ‘To Change the Church’

Jesus is challenged by a Pharisee in Titian’s The Tribute Money (1560-8)

There is a recurring theme in the papal rhetoric of the Francis era. To insist on the moral law too forcefully, the Pope and his allies often suggest, is to be like the Pharisees. Those “doctors of the law”, to borrow from a representative papal sermon, did not “consider people’s lives but only their own rules of laws and words”, whereas Jesus was constantly willing to “go beyond the law, the letter”.

Whenever the religious law of Jesus’s time seemed to impose needless suffering, he acted to lift the burden – healing on the Sabbath, embracing the unclean, sweeping away dietary regulations and other rituals that made people believe themselves defiled. And just as Jesus transcended Jewish legalism, Catholicism under Pope Francis must transcend its own legalities.

The idea is powerful. But it is not an idea to be found anywhere in the traditional teachings of the Church; it is an idea, indeed, that the Church has rejected, out of fidelity to the Gospels.

Jesus’s anger at legalism is directed against the ritual law of 1st-century Judaism – the rules related to purity, diet, Sabbath observance, and so on, all of which he insists can and must give way in the name of mercy, healing, encounter, love. But the moral law, the Ten Commandments and their corollaries, Jesus never relativises. He never suggests that there exists some shades-of-grey world in which apostasy or adultery (or fraud or murder or theft or gluttony or any other sin) are actually part of God’s complicated plan. Instead he heightens moral demands – urging purity of heart as well as purity of action, proposing a more sweeping rule of charity towards the poor, a more sweeping warning against the dangers of great wealth, and a more exalted view of sex and marriage.

Meanwhile, he often condemns the Jewish traditionalists and legalists of his time not because they are simplistic or harsh in their moral demands, but because their ritualism obscures the clarity of the moral law, or turns the law into a too clever means for people to avoid their clear moral obligations. Consider, for instance, this passage from Mark’s Gospel – the first half famous, the second more obscure:

So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!

“For Moses said, Honour your father and your mother, and Whoever curses father or mother shall die. Yet you say, If a person says to father or mother, ‘Any support you might have had from me is qorban’ [meaning, dedicated to God], you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother.

“You nullify the word of God in favour of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.”

The passage begins with Jesus rejecting a dead conservatism, in a very Francis-like style. But then he swiftly pivots to chastising the Pharisees on moralistic grounds, warning them that an absolute moral obligation – to support one’s parents in their old age – cannot be undone through some sophisticated legalism, some clever scheme in which the duty to honour your father and mother gets fulfilled through religious donations instead.

It’s a discourse that parallels his more famous discourse on marriage and adultery. There too it is precisely the allowance for divorce that he attacks a legalism and a human tradition, which is superseded by the intent of God’s certain and the clarity of God’s law. In both cases, legalism is rejected because it relativises morality, not because it makes the moral law too stringent. And there is never a moment where Jesus asks his disciples to violate the Ten Commandments for the sake of a higher or more complicated or nuanced moral vision.

This doesn’t mean that Jesus’s mercy isn’t absolute. It is more absolute, indeed, than Jewish law: the repentant sinner must be forgiven not seven times but seventy times seven, which is to say perpetually. But this absolute mercy is always linked to repentance; it is never deployed to supersede the Commandments, never used to suggest that they are too simplistic for dealing with the complexities of human situations, or that there is a landscape beyond or above them where the law does not apply.

Jesus doesn’t urge Peter to “go ahead, betray me, I understand”. Jesus doesn’t tell the woman taken in adultery, “Go back to your lover, because your situation is complex.” Jesus doesn’t tell Zacchaeus the tax collector, “Actually, keep the money you may have unjustly taken, because you need it to support your family.” Jesus dines with sinners, he hangs out with prostitutes and publicans, he evangelises the much married Samaritan woman, he welcomes thieves into eternity. But he never confirms them in their sins, or makes nuanced allowances for their state of life; that sort of rhetoric is alien to the Gospels. The ritual law – yes, that can and must be superseded. But the moral law – no, that is bedrock.

From To Change The Church by Ross Douthat. Copyright ©2018 by Ross Douthat. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This extract first appeared in the April 6th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here