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A Pharisee’s Examination of Conscience

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 31, 2022

Motives are elusive, and our self-justifications help define who we are. Few people rise to the heights of sanctity. We often behave like the Pharisees or, better, as repentant tax collectors.

The boast of the Pharisee and the tax collector have striking similarities. The Pharisee boasts of his virtues in the Temple: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’” (Lk. 18:9-14)

The chief tax collector makes a similar boast after his encounter with Jesus. With clear motives and without the ugly comparisons, “Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’” (Lk. 19:8) Jesus indicts the Pharisee and rewards the tax collector, even though the biblical reputation of tax collectors is contemptible.

Motives vary. The Pharisee knows his faith and relaxes in self-satisfaction; the tax collector discovers his faith and rejoices in the generous fruits of his conversion. The Pharisee regresses and takes pride in his virtue; the tax collector advances in goodness and delights in his strides. The Pharisee retreats into self-satisfaction; the tax collector publicly promises a life of generosity.

The tax collector scandalizes with his boast. His display leaves him vulnerable to disdain for his past behavior and scrutiny in the months and years ahead. He was among the epic scoundrels of biblical times! He not only was a rapacious tax collector taking his cut off the top, but he was the chief tax collector, skimming even more. How dare he make promises nobody expects him to keep! How could Jesus receive his conversion without skepticism? But He did.

The private boast of the Pharisee is not particularly scandalous. The rabbi is happy with the plate collections. His community does not fear his external compliance with the Mosaic Law. His self-satisfaction doesn’t matter to his friends and neighbors if he doesn’t cheat in his financial transactions and remains externally faithful to his wife and family. They may recognize the Pharisee as “a character” with amusing foibles such as taking places of honor. But the quirks and sinful flaws of the Pharisees add up in the Gospels.

A disturbing composite picture of the Pharisees (historically astute defenders of the Jewish faith) emerges from the scattered Gospel accounts. The Pharisees emphasize the minutiae of externals while neglecting the Commandments. The Pharisees are proud of their holiness and use it to criticize Jesus for eating with sinners. They are masters of rash judgments and consider themselves exemplars of justice and virtue. The mighty deeds of Jesus do not impress them. They sneer at His power to cast out devils and characterize Him as an instrument of evil. They demand signs to their impossible requirements.

They are religious busybodies. They contrast themselves to public sinners. They fast according to the Law and disapprove of those who do not measure up to their example. They are capable of grotesque abuse of human dignity to prove their observance of the Law (as the account of the woman taken in adultery depicts). They use long prayers and religion to take advantage of widows, cultivate hellish disciples, and are petty religious nitpickers. They are “whitened sepulchers” and use their pious practices to disguise the corruption of their hearts.

Filled with thin-skinned vengeance, the Pharisees reject all criticism. Eager to trap Jesus, they hold Him in contempt for His miracles. They disdain and abuse those healed by Jesus (e.g., Bartimaeus) and accuse Jesus of blasphemy for forgiving sins. The Pharisees use the Sabbath to justify their neglect of charity and devise elaborate schemes to trap Jesus. Imbued with hatred, they deny their faith and plot with the Herodians to destroy Jesus. Representatives of the Pharisees are among those who arrest Jesus.

A few Pharisees, like Nicodemus, admire Jesus in secret. Many of their doctrines—such as the resurrection of the dead—are orthodox. But the Gospel accounts reveal the widespread arrogant degradation of the Pharisees.

Do we share in these ugly Pharisaical attributes? Let us—clergy and laity—revisit Pharisaical motives as an examination of conscience:

  • Do I give or receive contributions—salaries—as bribes to avoid disapproval and maintain silence?
  • Do I refrain from offending my benefactors and employers with Gospel truths when necessary? (How else to explain the widespread silence and inaction of the hierarchy?)
  • Is my practice of the Catholic faith based on interior devotion or mere social convention?
  • Do I trivialize God’s Law by busying myself with venial sins and failing to recognize my cooperation with mortal sins (such as voting for pro-abortion politicians by arguing that unborn human life “is only one issue”)?
  • Do I use my virtues (not the Commandments) to measure the failures of others and their lack of manifest goodness?
  • Do I hold in contempt those who haven’t received the gifts God has given me?
  • Do I expect Jesus to prove Himself to my satisfaction that if He is the Son of God, He should grant my every prayer request?
  • Am I a busybody constantly making rash judgments about others?
  • Do I disguise my habitual petty corruption with pietistic displays?
  • Am I a religious nitpicker of others and refuse to acknowledge my transgressions, especially in Confession?
  • Do I take sinful financial, emotional, or spiritual advantage of others?
  • Are self-deception and an obtuse spirit common character flaws?

The number of hostile encounters in the Gospels suggests the failures of the Pharisees pose a more deadly threat to the teachings of Jesus than the Herodians and Romans. Unlike the tax collectors and prostitutes, the Pharisees hide their hellish fraud from plain view. But Jesus reads hearts and warns: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Mt. 21:31)

Unnerving words for every era.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - Nov. 08, 2022 2:44 PM ET USA

    This is a very appropriate reflection on the state of the conscience of those who think themselves to be holy.

  • Posted by: upurchaser5373 - Nov. 02, 2022 6:08 AM ET USA

    "Self-deception" in the examination? If you deceive yourself, how would you know?