03 March 2015

Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees!

Whenever the term "Pharisee" is thrown around as an accusation to silence people who are trying, often humbly, to defend the Catholic Faith, one is left wondering: What exactly was Christ condemning in the Pharisees? Below I have collected a few of the many passages in the Fathers of the Church on this topic.*

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, from Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 13

For all these [citations just given from the Gospel] do not contain or imply an opposition to and an overturning of the [precepts] of the past, as Marcion's followers do strenuously maintain; but [they exhibit] a fulfilling and an extension of them, as He does Himself declare: “Unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) For what meant the excess referred to? In the first place, [we must] believe not only in the Father, but also in His Son now revealed; for He it is who leads man into fellowship and unity with God. In the next place, [we must] not only say, but we must do; for they said, but did not. And [we must] not only abstain from evil deeds, but even from the desires after them. Now He did not teach us these things as being opposed to the law, but as fulfilling the law, and implanting in us the varied righteousness of the law. That would have been contrary to the law, if He had commanded His disciples to do anything which the law had prohibited. But this which He did command— namely, not only to abstain from things forbidden by the law, but even from longing after them— is not contrary to [the law], as I have remarked, neither is it the utterance of one destroying the law, but of one fulfilling, extending, and affording greater scope to it.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, from Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 18

Wherefore did the Lord also declare: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like whited sepulchres. For the sepulchre appears beautiful outside, but within it is full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness; even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of wickedness and hypocrisy.” (Matthew 23:27-28) For while they were thought to offer correctly so far as outward appearance went, they had in themselves jealousy like to Cain; therefore they slew the Just One, slighting the counsel of the Word, as did also Cain. For [God] said to him, “Be at rest;” but he did not assent. Now what else is it to“be at rest” than to forego purposed violence? And saying similar things to these men, He declares: “You blind Pharisee, cleanse that which is within the cup, that the outside may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:26) And they did not listen to Him. For Jeremiah says,“Behold, neither your eyes nor your heart are good; but [they are turned] to your covetousness, and to shed innocent blood, and for injustice, and for man-slaying, that you may do it.” (Jeremiah 22:17) And again Isaiah says, “You have taken counsel, but not of Me; and made covenants, [but] not by My Spirit.”

Tertullian, from his book On Monogamy, Chapter 8

But further, if Christ reproves the scribes and Pharisees, sitting in the official chair of Moses, but not doing what they taught, what kind of supposition is it that He Himself withal should set upon His own official chair men who were mindful rather to enjoin— but not likewise to practice— sanctity of the flesh, which (sanctity) He had in all ways recommended to their teaching and practicing?— first by His own example, then by all other arguments; while He tells them that “the kingdom of heavens” is “children's;” while He associates with these children others who, after marriage, remained (or became) virgins; while He calls them to copy the simplicity of the dove, a bird not merely innocuous, but modest too, and whereof one male know sone female; while He denies the Samaritan woman's (partner to be) a husband, that He may show that manifold husbandry is adultery; while, in the revelation of His own glory, He prefers, from among so many saints and prophets, to have with him Moses and Elias— the one a monogamist, the other a voluntary celibate (for Elias was nothing else than John, who came “in the power and spirit of Elias”); while that “man gluttonous and toping,” the “frequenter of luncheons and suppers, in the company of publicans and sinners,” sups once for all at a single marriage, though, of course, many were marrying(around Him); for He willed to attend marriages only so often as He willed them to be.

St. Augustine, from his 56th Sermon on the New Testament

What then did He answer? “Now do ye Pharisees wash the outside of the platter; but within you are full of guile and ravening.” What! Is this to come to a feast! How did He not spare the man by whom He had been invited? Yea rather by rebuking He did spare him, that being reformed He might spare him in the judgment. And what is it that He shows to us? That Baptism also which is conferred once for all, cleanses by faith. Now faith is within, not without. Wherefore it is said and read in the Acts of the Apostles, “Cleansing their hearts by faith.” And the Apostle Peter thus speaks in his Epistle; “So too has He given you a similitude from Noah's ark, how that eight souls were saved by water.” And then he added, “So also in a like figure will baptism save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience.” “This answer of a good conscience did the Pharisees despise, and washed “that which was without;” within they continued full of pollution.

St. Augustine, from his 208th Letter

Concerning the bad shepherds He admonishes the sheep in these words: “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2-3) When these are listened to, the sheep of Christ, even through evil teachers, hear His voice, and do not forsake the unity of His flock, because the good which they hear them teach belongs not to the shepherds but to Him, and therefore the sheep are safely fed, since even under bad shepherds they are nourished in the Lord's pastures. They do not, however, imitate the actions of the bad shepherds, because suchactions belong not to the world but to the shepherds themselves. In regard, however, to those whom they see to be good shepherds, they not only hear the good things which they teach, but also imitate the good actions which they perform. Of this number was the apostle, who said: “Be followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

St. Augustine, from his 79th Sermon on the New Testament

What was the doctrine of the Pharisees, but that which you have now heard?“Seeking glory one of another, looking for glory one from another, and not seeking the glory which is of God only.” Of these the Apostle Paul thus speaks; “I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” “They have,” he says, “a zeal of God;” I know it, I am sure of it; I was once among them, I was such as they.“They have,” he says, “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” What is this, O Apostle, “not according to knowledge? Explain to us what the knowledge is you set forth, which you grieve is not in them, and would should be in us? He went on and subjoined and developed what he had set forth closed. What is, “They have a zeal ofGod, but not according to knowledge? For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and wishing to establish their own, have not submitted themselves into the righteousness of God.” To be ignorant then of God's righteousness, and to wish to establish one's own, this is to “look for glory one from another, and not to seek the glory which is of God only.” This is the leaven of the Pharisees. Of this the Lord bids beware. If it is servants that He bids, and the Lord that bids, let us beware; lest we hear, “Why say ye to Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”

St. Augustine, from his book Contra Faustum, Book XVII

Every one can see the weakness of the argument that Christ could not have said, "Think not that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill," unless He had done something to create a suspicion of this kind. Of course, we grant that the unenlightened Jews may have looked upon Christ as the destroyer of the law and the prophets; but their very suspicion makes it certain that the true andtruthful One, in saying that He came not to destroy the law and the prophets, referred to no other law than that of the Jews. This is proved by the words that follow: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whosoever shall do and teach them, shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." This applied to the Pharisees, who taught the law in word, while they broke it in deed. Christ says of the Pharisees in another place, "What they say, that do; but do not after their works: for they say, and do not." (Matthew 23:3) So here also He adds, "For I say unto you, Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven;" (Matthew 5:17-20) that is, Unless you shall both do and teach what they teach without doing, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. This law, therefore, which the Pharisees taught without keeping it, Christ says He came not to destroy, but to fulfill; for this was the law connected with the seat of Moses in which the Pharisees sat, who because they said without doing, are to be heard, but not to be imitated.

St. Athanasius, from his book De Decretis, Chapter 1

As then the Jews of that day, for acting thus wickedly and denying the Lord, were with justice deprived of their laws and of the promise made to their fathers, so the Arians, Judaizing now, are, in my judgment, in circumstances like those of Caiaphas and the contemporary Pharisees. For, perceiving that their heresy is utterly unreasonable, they invent excuses, “Why was this defined, and not that?” Yet wonder not if now they practice thus; for in no long time they will turn to outrage, and next will threaten 'the band and the captain. ' Forsooth in these their heterodoxy has its support, as we see; for denying the Word of God, reason have they none at all, as is equitable. Aware then of this, I would have made no reply to their interrogations: but, since your friendliness has asked to know the transactions of the Council, I have without any delay related at once what then took place, showing in few words, how destitute Arianism is of a religious spirit, and how their one business is to frame evasions.

Origen, from Book XII of his Commentary on Matthew

It is the mark of the clear-sighted and careful to separate the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees and every food that is not of the unleavened-bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:8) from the living bread, even that which came down from heaven, so that no one who eats may adopt the things of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but by eating the living and true bread may strengthen his soul. And we might seasonably apply the saying to those who, along with the Christian way of life, prefer to live as the Jews, materially, for these do not see nor beware of the leaven of the Pharisees andSadducees, but, contrary to the will of Jesus who forbade it, eat the bread of thePharisees. Yea and also all, who do not wish to understand that the law is spiritual, and has a shadow of the good things to come, (Hebrews 10:1) and is a shadow of the things to come, (Colossians 2:17) neither inquire of what good thing about to be each of the laws is a shadow, nor do they see nor beware of the leaven of the Pharisees...

St. Ambrose, from his 41st Letter

And, finally, the Pharisee, when the Lord asked him, “which of them loved him most,” (Luke 7:42) answered, “I suppose that he to whom he forgave most.” And the Lord replied, “You have judged rightly.” (Luke 7:43) The judgment of the Pharisee is praised, but his affection is blamed. He judges well concerning others, but does not himself believethat which he thinks well of in the case of others. You hear a Jew praising the disciplineof the Church, extolling its true grace, honouring the priests of the Church; if you exhort him to believe he refuses, and so follows not himself that which he praises in us. His praise, then, is not full, because Christ said to him: “You have rightly judged,” for Cainalso offered rightly, but did not divide rightly, and therefore God said to him: “If you offer rightly, but dividest not rightly, you have sinned, be still.” So, then, this manoffered rightly, for he judges that Christ ought to be more loved by Christians, because He has forgiven us many sins; but he divided not rightly, because he thought that He could be ignorant of the sins of men Who forgave the sins of men.

St. John Cassian, from the Institutes, Book XI, Chapter 12

And so the Apostle warns us: “Be not desirous of vainglory.” (Galatians 5:26) And the Lord, rebuking the Pharisees, says, “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another, and seek not the glory which comes from God alone?” (John 5:44) Of these too the blessed David speaks with a threat: “For God has scattered the bones of them that please men.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, from his treatise On Works and Alms

What does a faithless heart do in the home of faith? Why is he who does not altogether trust in Christ named and called a Christian? The name of Pharisee is more fitting for you. For when in the Gospel the Lord was discoursing concerning almsgiving, and faithfully and wholesomely warned us to make to ourselves friends of our earthly lucre by provident good works, who might afterwards receive us into eternal dwellings, theScripture added after this, and said, “But the Pharisees heard all these things, who were very covetous, and they derided Him.” (Luke 16:14) Some suchlike we see now in the Church, whose closed ears and darkened hearts admit no light from spiritual and saving warnings, of whom we need not wonder that they contemn the servant in his discourses, when we see the Lord Himself despised by such.

From the Acts of the Disputation between the Bishop Archelaus and the Heresiarch Manes

But now, what it is necessary for me to say on the subject of tim inner and the outer man, may be expressed in the words of the Saviour to those who swallow a camel, and wear the outward garb of the hypocrite, begirt with blandishments and flatteries. It is to them that Jesus addresses Himself when He says: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of uncleanness. Or know you not, that He that made that which is without, made that which is within also? ” Now why did He speak of the cup and of the platter? Was He who uttered these words a glassworker, or a potter who made vessels of clay? Did He not speak most manifestly of the body and the soul? For the Pharisees truly looked to the “tithing of anise and cummin, and left undone the weightier matters of the law; ”and while devoting great care to the things which were external, they overlooked those which bore upon the salvation of the soul. For they also had respect to “greetings in the market-place,” and “to the uppermost seats at feasts: ” and to them the Lord Jesus,knowing their perdition, made this declaration, that they attended to those things only which were without, and despised as strange things those which were within, and understood not that He who made the body made also the soul.

Pseudo-Clement of Rome, from the Recognitions, Book VI

Moreover, it is good, and tends to purity, also to wash the body with water. I call itgood, not as if it were that prime good of the purifying of the mind, but because this of the washing of the body is the sequel of that good. For so also our Master rebuked some of the Pharisees and scribes, who seemed to be better than others, and separated from the people, calling them hypocrites, because they purified only those things which were seen of men, but left defiled and sordid their hearts, which God alone sees. To some therefore of them— not to all— He said, 'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because ye cleanse the outside of the cup and platter, but the inside is full of pollution. O blind Pharisees, first make clean what is within, and what is without shall be clean also.' (Matthew 23:25-26) For truly, if the mind be purified by the light of knowledge, when once it is clean and clear, then it necessarily takes care of that which is without a man, that is, his flesh, that it also may be purified. But when that which is without, the cleansing of the flesh, is neglected, it is certain that there is no care taken of the purity of the mind and the cleanness of the heart. Thus therefore it comes to pass, that he who is clean inwardly is without doubt cleansed outwardly also, but not always that he who is clean outwardly is also cleansed inwardly— to wit, when he does these things that he may please men.

*All of the above citations were taken from