Reading the Gospels has many, many benefits. It introduces you to the person and words of Christ; it challenges you morally and demands that you stretch your spirit; it issues a call for a kind of compassion that was largely new to the world, and that needs to be made new again in the heart of each generation. There are also some dangers entailed in reading the Gospels naively or carelessly, or through the jaundiced lens screwed on by secular media. So it’s good to step back and remember the facts on the ground in Palestine, AD 33. The Jews of that time were much like Christians today: deeply divided, and subject to a hostile government promoting false and alien values.
The Sadducees accepted only part of the Hebrew bible – for instance, they rejected life after death – but they had the greatest institutional power: they controlled the Jewish temple. These were the men who subcontracted to the moneychangers, and who made a healthy profit selling animals for sacrifice. Their strategy for surviving Roman occupation was to collaborate enthusiastically with the enlightened, jaded pagans who ran their country through procurators like Pilate and puppets like King Herod. What was Jesus’s attitude toward the Sadducees? He did not even bother to preach to them, but sometimes offered a witty, disarming answer to loaded questions posed by their flunkies – for instance, when they tried to make of him a criminal tax resistor. Christ answered that we should render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s – and threw in a barb meant especially for the Sadducees: and render unto God what is God’s. The implication was clear: “Because you haven’t been doing that, have you?”
The Sadduccees were the Nancy Pelosis of their day; the liberal Jesuits tenured at posh colleges like Georgetown; the religious sisters who run large hospitals that stand to profit from Obamacare; the Boston Irish Democrats who campaigned for same-sex marriage; the wealthy suburban pastors with secular congregations who favor subcontracting the corporal works of mercy to anonymous government agencies. Such Catholics today, who collaborate gleefully with a secular government premised on utilitarian hedonism, are in no danger of seeming “obsessed” with the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life or natural marriage. They seize on Pope Francis’s words in much the way that a Sadducee might have quoted Christ’s admonitions against the (much more pious) Pharisees: “You see? We were right. Those fanatics are wasting their time.” But of course, that wasn’t what Jesus meant.
In Christ’s dialogues with the Pharisees, we see a stark and dramatic faceoff: an itinerant preacher addressing the most devout, self-sacrificing members of the one true religion on earth, and telling them, “Good, but not good enough!” Because we read the Gospels with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy for us to judge the Pharisees wrongly, to see everything they do and say in the light of Christ’s trial and death – to let the Sanhedrin’s decision to condemn Jesus to death taint all the Pharisees (or even all the Jews, both then and now) with the blood of “this innocent man.” But there were worthy Pharisees like Nicodemus, and others whose names were never recorded.
Nor was the Pharisees’ project itself unworthy, or even what we’d now call “pharisaical.” The Pharisees had responded to Rome’s conquest by digging in and doubling down; if they could not expel the pagans and restore the kingdom of Israel, they could at least keep themselves as a faithful remnant, and scrupulously keep alive the faith and traditions that had been handed down from Moses. For all of this, Jesus praised them. What he condemned in potent words was their fallen willingness to let the form replace the content, the all-too-human impulse to master the “easy” parts of the Law – to get the right number of knots on your prayer shawl, for instance – while skipping its difficult ethical core: the commands to compassion, to service, to love. Christ got angry with the Pharisees