Do we really know what a Pharisee was? We tend to use the term to describe someone who is rather rigid and zealous in their religious belief, and today’s parable would seem to support such a view of the Pharisees. In fact, many of us would probably feel uncomfortable to hear that most scholars would classify Jesus as belonging more to the Pharisaical branch of Judaism. So, who were the Pharisees?
The name “Pharisee” means “stands apart.” They were a reform movement of Judaism that began about a 100 years before Jesus, in response to the Greeks taking over much of the Holy Land after Alexander the Great. Under the Greek rule, and then the Romans, there were many political compromises made by many of the leading families of Israel who thought it would be better to become more “Greek” in their lifestyle, and discarding aspects of the Jewish religious laws. The fraction of Judaism who wanted to accommodate to the Greek and then Roman way of life came to be known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees manipulated the religious institutions, particularly the temple priesthood, for their own gains. The Sadducees also did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or angels; they thought such beliefs were too old-fashioned.
The Pharisees “stood apart” from the Sadducees, reminding the Jewish people of their beliefs and their customs. They did believe in the resurrection of the dead and angels. They did not believe in compromising the Jewish religious beliefs just to fit in to society’s culture. They correctly realized that God had called them to transform society, and not to be changed by society. The Pharisees made a difference and attracted many ordinary Jews to a deeper life of faith, and since their movement was not as focused on the Temple in Jerusalem, but actually started the synagogue movement, in a way, the Pharisees were the branch of Judaism which continues today.
However, there was a dangerous temptation that the Pharisees fell prey to; their religious devotion could become a rigid formalism, and lead to pride. By the time of Jesus, many of the Pharisees thought that they were better than most people, instead of a light attracting people to God. We see this in the prayer of the Pharisee in today’s parable. He starts off by thanking God for not being like the rest of humanity. He then boosts of all the good things that he does; and they are good things. It is good not to be greedy, to be honest, and not to commit adultery. It is good to pray and fast, and to pay tithes which were used to care for the poor. The reason that Jesus judges the Pharisee harshly is because he did these things more for himself than for God; he wanted to prove that he was better than most people.
Jesus reminds us that all prayer and worship is to recognize our dependence on God; not to make our case for divine reward or recognition. This is exactly how the publican prays. He knows that he is a sinner and in need of God. He asks God for mercy, and acknowledges that he can do nothing good without God.
The publican’s prayer is the prayer of the “anawim.” “Anawim” was the name of the poor in Israel; those who were dependent on others for the necessities of life, particularly the orphan, the widow, and the alien (think immigrant, not ET). The anawim were, in a sense, dependents of God Himself and therefore had a special claim on the people of Israel. From being a disenfranchised segment of society, the anawim’s status gradually took on a spiritual significance as they came to represent the spiritual dependence to which we are all called. This is what Jesus means when He says in the Beatitudes, “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
His name is Francis Kisakye, and he calls me his father. Francis is now 15 years-old, and lives in Uganda. We have never met in person, but he is my son. Francis’ father died a number of years ago, and he comes from a rather large family. His father was in the process of buying the land and house where they lived and farmed when he died. Since then Francis’ mother and family have tired to keep up the farm and pay the mortgage, but it looks like they are going to lose everything. They are very poor; sometimes they have to alternate who is going to eat that day.
I learned about Francis from an organization called Yamba Uganda, and through Francis’ priest, Fr. Vincent, who is a friend of mine. Francis wants to become a doctor, and/or a priest, so he can serve his people, but he did not have the money to go to school. Fr. Vincent wanted to build a secondary school in his parish, which has 13 sub-parishes, because the only secondary school in the area is Muslim, and only takes Muslims. One of Francis’ friends went to that school, but when they saw that he was wearing a crucifix under his shirt, they nearly beat him to death. I was helping raise money for Fr. Vincent to build his secondary school when I was a high school chaplain, and then Fr. Vincent asked me if I would sponsor Francis so that he could go to school. So each month I send $30 to pay for Francis’ education, which also provides him with one meal each day.
Today the Church celebrates World Mission Sunday to remind us that the anawim are still among us. And like they did for the Israelites, today’s anawim remind us that all of us need to depend on God for our ultimate happiness, and we live His divine life when we love each other, especially those who are most of need. There are many organizations which help the poor and needy, both locally and internationally. They do great things, and we should support them financially. However, we need to be careful not to fall into the temptation that the Pharisee did; of doing these things more for our own reputation, than for God. It is easy to give to the “nameless” poor by giving to aid organizations, but the poor, the anawim, are not nameless. When we give to these aid organizations we need to really think about and pray for the very real people they are helping. That is why I like groups like Yamba Uganda. Yes, I give them money, but they also helped me develop a relationship with a real person, Francis, my son. We write to each other; in fact I just got a letter from him this past week. I need to write back to him, because he has been worried about me, since he heard about my medical problems at the beginning of the year. He prays for me daily, as I pray for him.
As we acknowledge our dependence on God and thank Him for the gift of the Eucharist that we will soon receive, let us also make the prayer of the anawim our own. Let us thank God for being our Father, for providing everything we need, and let us make God’s concern for the anawim in society our own, so that we can commit ourselves to serving and loving them as our Heaven Father does.