The hypocrisy and corruption associated with the Pharisees, as portrayed in the gospels, has made their name a potent insult. But Christian teaching, despite describing this corruption as extremely dangerous, often places the threat of the Pharisees’ attitude and actions far away from our present day context. This is a mistake.
Jesus describes the attitudes and actions of the Pharisees as a present and persistent danger to his followers. He said to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” encouraging them to be vigilant in avoiding this threat to themselves and others. And the others are often the vulnerable, as the gospels’ narratives show. The poor and the marginalized are the most frequent victims of religious corruption.
The use of the word “leaven” is important, describing the way religious corruption can quietly, even in small doses, overwhelm the individual disciple and whole religious communities, systems and institutions. Hearing this should steer us away from quick judgments of any other person or group, even the Pharisees. The main thrust, however, is to be on guard against the subtlety and persistence of religiosity and its tendency to despoil and corrupt religious faith and community.
The simple positive here, the antidote, is to put God above all else in life, making this real by faith and trust. Applied to our religious practice, individual or communal, it means that we must never let the human response to God, however beautiful or noble, become more important to us than God. We must never let fear be our guide. Though this might seem to be elementary, in practice it is often illusive. Whenever we think the dignity of a whole institution is more important than the life and well-being of even one child, we are feeling the influence of the leaven that plagued the Pharisees. Whenever we value the economic or legal integrity of the church more than a fearless pursuit of God’s truth, we feel the influence of the leaven. The pride that leads us to believe that we may have discovered or developed a uniquely privileged form of faith; that it, rather than the gospel, will save us, is the influence of the leaven. Fear and uncertainty seem to make this leaven work more quickly, and conflict and division seem to increase its reach.
Although it has been a constant danger, the leaven of religious corruption seems a particular danger to us now-every one of us and all of us together. It will take a turn to faith and a return to vigilance to save us. Avoiding the influence of the leaven of religious corruption may seem costly, but not if we remember and practise the promise of Jesus: if we lose our life for his sake, we will save our life.
Bishop Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.