Here’s Something the Pharisees Got Right

Who is your rabbi?

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Curses Against the Pharisees”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Curses Against the Pharisees” (photo: Public Domain)

Years ago, before I was Catholic, a friend didn’t like something I told her about her lifestyle and told me, “Oh that’s so pharisaical of you!”

What happened was that she was pro-abortion and I was pro-life (somewhat, back then), and she asked if I would ever be in a relationship with someone who supported abortion. I told her that I would be friends with nearly anyone, but I could not keep up a relationship with someone whom I had such critical disagreements. She told me I was a Pharisee for it.

Yeah, back then, that sort of comment hurt me, but it wasn’t something I was willing to change my mind on—the support of the unborn was so much more important. Still, the comment stung my 20-year-old feelings. And honestly, I didn’t know what she meant. “Pharisee? What does she mean? I wasn’t accusing her. I wasn’t trying to trap her in a lie. Was she calling me a hypocrite?”

Not knowing what she meant—and at this point not wanting to ask her—the situation caused me to read everything in the gospels involving the Pharisees. I quickly realized that she called me a Pharisee for being self-righteous—for denying someone because of a moral position they held.

In the end, it didn’t sway my opinion of things, but ever since then I’ve given close attention to the narratives in the Bible about this political and religious faction. One thing that fascinates me is Jesus’s critical warning about their hypocrisy juxtaposed to his guidance to follow the Pharisee’s instructions: “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:3). Strikingly, in many translations, the verse includes Jesus telling the crowds not just to “observe” but to “be careful” to practice and observe whatever they say.

It always struck me as odd that Jesus would say this, sort of like an endorsement as to the correctness of their teaching and even the exertions of their rule. He recognizes their legitimate place on “Moses’ seat” but is critical on the hazards of following their example. The Apostles weren’t off the hook just because they were in Jesus’s inner circle—they were still required to observe the law and those with rightful authority. Paul, too in a way, echoes this in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

The is biblical story involving the place and rule of the “seat of Moses” can be of use to modern Catholics. If you’re not aware, in the ancient Jewish tradition is the instruction and mentorship of the rabbi. In essence, one’s repute as an academic or religious authority rested in the repute of the rabbi that was educated them. Your rabbi would have an excellent reputation if his rabbi had an excellent reputation, and so on. In short, repute was authority and only the authorities who were derived from this system were able to teach without provoking people like the Pharisees.”

This not a “good ol’ boys” system—it’s a system that works. When I look at it, it’s exactly why the authority of the Apostles works. The authority of our modern bishops is derived from the authority of the bishops who trained them, and the same goes for ever Catholic bishop all the way back to the apostles. And whence did their authority derive? Their authority was derived from their rabbi, Jesus. There is no doubt that this how they understood Jesus’s intention and position as well.  

John 1:38: Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

John 1:49: Nathan′a-el answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

John 9:2: And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

These days I fear many don’t realize how relevant this concept is, not just to the authority of bishops, but to education itself, the main purpose of the rabbinical authority tradition. When it comes to education, formal or information, many forget the important of credentials and how that ties in to “who taught you.”

In biblical times, if you brought a new teaching or were not a known rabbi, the first question you would receive is, “who was your rabbi,” and this was like asking “where did you get your education?” They’ll want to know what makes you qualified, and, is that qualification known to teach the authentic, orthodox Faith, or something else? Today in the Church, if you want to teach others with a blog or help others understand the Faith with a podcast, they’ll ask you the same question: “What qualifications do you possess?” And it’s something to consider, especially for those who contribute to the New Evangelization.

President Donald Trump during his speech at a "Thank You" Tour rally held at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa.

President Trump: ‘Faith in God’ Helps Unite Nation

In an apparent reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and months of demonstrations and civil unrest across several U.S. cities over racial justice issues, Trump said that faith was an important support for civil and national unity.