By Canon Gerry Conroy
Pharisees have a bad reputation, even though they were trying to be good people and like all good people they didn’t want to do wrong, they wanted to live good lives and choose what was right, BUT they feared sinning, even the tiniest sin, and that fear was all that the devil needed to get inside their defences. And they had lots of defences! They thought that by surrounding themselves with all kinds of protection they could ward off the evil from their lives and avoid sinning. They condemned sins such as fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly and they hated these sins so much that they would have nothing to do with anyone who committed these sins; they shunned sinners and tried to force others to shun them also. They thought that by isolating themselves from sin they wouldn’t fall into sin. I suppose they knew the power of sin. What they failed to see was that they then fell into another sin with their lack of charity and the pride that came with their blindness to these other sins. They thought they could keep sin at bay with their traditions and their regulations, not realising that there was a weakness already in them and that sin already had a foothold in their imagined stronghold. That weakness in all of us is what we call ‘Original Sin’. Jesus spoke of the evil intentions emerging from our hearts, rather than invading our hearts from outside and when the seeds of such sins are already within our stronghold, we need something different, something new apart from rules and regulations if we are to escape sinning, if we are to live the goodness we want. We need a change of heart, a purifying of our heart. That is something laws and regulations cannot do for us.
How different when the Law is first given to Israel: the hope that pervades that first reading is so different from the mentality of the Pharisees in the Gospel. It is as if the Pharisees feel they are losing the battle against evil and have retreated inside their strongholds not daring to venture out. They are like the man in that parable Christ once told about the man who received one talent and went and hid it in the ground because he was afraid. They seem to have lost the joy and beauty of faith and can give importance only to the restrictions. Perhaps it is a bit like this pandemic: Restrictions are necessary, but the danger is that we lose touch with the joy and beauty of life and can see value only in the restrictions.
So, what is our faith about? Is it about sin and death or is it about joy and life? Yes, Sin and death are real and to be avoided, but we must never forget that our faith is a story of hope and the fullness of life. Our journey is towards that full life and though there are pitfalls that would hinder us and lead us astray, they are not what the journey is about and when we make the journey about them we become lost and travel in circles rather than pressing on to the hope we have been given. When we look to the sins we commit more than to the grace that God gives us, we become bogged down in rules and regulations, we lose touch with the love that has been given to us and the love which we are called to live and share. We may fall, but we get back up again, we may sin, but we ask forgiveness and we keep going because what is at stake is too great a gift to lose.
Top picture: Police sent out to impose the restrictions during the pandemic. Picture by Bill Heaney