First Point—The justice of the Pharisees was wholly exterior. Jesus said to them: "You are careful to cleanse the exterior of the cup regardless of what is within it," and for this reason He calls them "whited sepulchres" St. Luke also speaks of the justice of the Pharisees: "I am not as the rest of men." In what do you excel, vain and proud man ? " I fast twice in the week and I pay the tenth of all I possess." He boasts only of his external works, and they that resemble him are attached only to the external observances. The Pharisee does not abandon or despise the practices of piety, or the ceremonies of religion. Exterior worship is a duty, and the sloth or false shame which makes us neglect it is a sin. But it is quite another thing to be engaged solely in exterior works of piety, and to put aside the virtues which are in the soul; this is really to possess a Pharisaical justice.
If your piety be true, it must be united to virtue. To be pious without being virtuous is to cleanse the outside of the cup without putting in it the perfume which must attract the pleasure of God; it is to resemble those whited sepulchres of which the Saviour spoke, which appeared beautiful in the eyes of men, but which were within full of dead bones and corruption. If, therefore, you wish that your worship may be an act of adoration, and not a falsehood, it must be the expression of your interior sentiments; otherwise you shall merit this reproach of the Saviou: " These people honor me with their
lips, but their hearts are far from me." Yes, says Bossuet, to say prayers, to go to church, assist at the holy sacrifice, to take holy water, and to kneel without having the spirit of all this, is pharisaical justice. It seems to have some exactitude, but it is reprobated by God, who wishes to have, particularly, the homage of the heart. Is this deceitful piety, which was so common in the Mosaic law, very rare in the Church of Jesus Christ ? Alas, how many Christians pride themselves on their regularity, and place all their perfection in the fulfillment of the exterior duties which religion commands, while they neglect what is most imperiously commanded—to restrain their temper, regulate their inclinations, and repress their passions!
How many are considered as devout people because they are assiduous in the temple, and who are vain, sensual, angry, and detractors? They are scrupulous at the slightest neglect in their habits of devotion, but they have no remorse for their numerous defects. The reason of this inversion of principles is not easily understood. The external practices are not so difficult as the exercise of interior virtue the performance of some acts costs less than self reformation. We, therefore, abandon the duties which require combats against ourselves, to indulge in practices which are more to our tastes. Guard well against this deceitful piety, which will hopelessly ruin you because it forms in you a conscience which is truly false.
Second Point.—The justice of the Pharisee, was incomplete. True justice, that which shone in the lives of the saints, is an act of obedience and fidelity to all the commandments: it fulfilled all the law. Jesus has said: "He that loves Me shall keep My commandments." He did not say some of My commandments, nor for some time only, but all the commandments, and always, and at every age. The Pharisees chose, according to their caprice, those commandments which were convenient for them. They practiced certain observances which were to their taste, and neglected the most essential precepts. This is the reproach which Jesus made to them, and with a severity of language which clearly shows the indignation with which this vicious piety inspired Him. "Woe to you, Pharisees, hypocrites, because you are exact in paying tithes, you are faithful in observing certain legal ceremonies, and you forget the essential duties of justice, charity and mercy."
The Pharisees considered it a crime to gather a bundle of straw on the Sabbath day, while on that same day they formed intrigues against Jesus. They took care to wash their hands before their repasts, and charged the apostles with a crime for neglecting this practice ; but at the same time they violated the precept which commanded them to honor father and mother. This is certainly a strange combination of piety and sin which can be explained only with difficulty. If we are unfaithful in little things, and stand firm in greater matters, this would be a consequence of our poor human frailty; but that we should discover a piety whose character is to be exact even to scrupulosity in little things, and to neglect things which are essential, is one of the grossest illusions. But it is so frequent that it cannot be guarded against too much. Look upon it as one of the pitfalls which the demon places for souls which he sees strongly attached to virtue. If he tempted them to commit sin, these souls would reject the temptation with horror. Having no hope to seduce them, he strives to lead them astray. He employs, however, the contrary means. It is through their very taste for piety that he tempts them. He places before their eyes the means of apparent perfection, but not real, and inspires them with an unwise ardor in their exercise. Because these practices are to their taste, they remain faithful to them nevertheless. And one of the scandals of the world, one of the reproaches which irreligion urges against piety, is to behold true obligations, those which the profession of piety imposes and which justice and charity prescribe, sacrificed to false duties.
To avoid all illusion, we must distinguish well between what is only mere counsel and what is of precept; between the things which are of simple perfection and those which are of rigorous obligation. We should be faithful to the first through love, and to the others through duty. To do that which is only a counsel and to neglect that which is a precept is the sign of a false devotion; to do only that which is of precept and to despise what is merely of counsel is a sign of slothfulness; but to faithfully attend to both, the precept and the counsel, is indeed perfection.
Third Point.—The justice of the Pharisees was interested. They sought only the esteem of men, and cared little for the esteem of God. They prayed to be seen, they gave alms to be applauded, and they fasted to earn for themselves the reputation of being just men. Men, charmed by all their external beauty, honored and venerated them; but Jesus, who read their hearts, exclaimed: "Woe to you, hypocrites, who pretend to pray in public, and who sound the trumpet when you distribute alms, you have already received your reward." But is your virtue really exempt from that gross pride which was the only motive of the Pharisee ; is it wholly disinterested? Pride is very subtle, and there are many little winding ways by which it enters our soul. That your piety may be disinterested it is necessary in all you do—prayers, alms, good works, confessions, communions—that you should have but the single intention of pleasing God; every other motive shall be a stain on your soul, if it be not completely effaced. And now, is your piety truly disinterested ? Indeed, it is not a hypocritical piety, but is it truly God, only, you seek in your devotion? Is it He or His consolations? Is it the thought that you wish to honor God which makes you desire to receive holy communion so often, or that prompts your prayer on certain days? Or is it because you find a certain pleasure in the performance of these exercises of devotion? If God should withdraw that sensible pleasure you experience, would you continue to pray and approach the sacraments? Have these exercises of devotion ceased to be agreeable to the heart of God when they ceased to be consoling to you? Then it is not for God that you have been virtuous and faithful; it was for yourself. We should fear the anathema hurled by our divine Saviour against the Pharisees: "They have already received their reward."
Source: Short Instructions on the Feasts of the Year, Imprimatur 1897