Today is the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
By Fr. Francis Xaveir Weninger, 1877
“For I say to you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and of the Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”–Matt. 5.
Among the persons who were hostile to Christ who despised and calumniated His teachings, and at last roused the people to such a height of frenzy that they crucified Him, the Gospel mentions the following four classes: the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Sadducees, and the priests of the Old Testament. The Pharisees, however, were the principal ones who worked against our Lord, and their opposition was especially dangerous, because the people were deceived by their hypocrisy, mistaking it for true piety and virtue.
They honored the Pharisees as defenders of the law of Moses, and received from them the doctrine that God was its author, although the Pharisees derogated from the power and holiness of the sacred volumes by voluntary additions which they called traditions. Christ calls them whitewashed sepulchers, vipers; but most frequently, hypocrites.
There are, alas! many children of the Church who resemble the Pharisees, and whose Catholic exterior is only deception, hypocrisy. To see the truth of this accusation we need but compare the manner of life of the Pharisees with that of these Christians. Mary, mirror of justice, inspire us with an earnest desire to live in true holiness! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, to the greater glory of God!
Christ warns His disciples against the spirit of the Pharisees. He calls them hypocrites, whitewashed sepulchers, men who are satisfied with honoring God outwardly, but who are inwardly filled with egotism and pride; enemies of truth, men without genuine brotherly love. How many who call themselves children of the Church, unfortunately bear the same characteristics! They deserve the reproach of Christ: Hypocrites!
This reproach all those deserve who are satisfied with fulfilling outwardly the duties of a child of the Church, while in their hearts they are not children of God but of the devil, living as they do in the state of mortal sin. They say their morning and evening prayers, visit the Church, assist in body at the holy sacrifice of the Mass; but though they may deceive man, they can not deceive God. Their prayers are mere words; their heart concurs in nothing that their lips utter; on the contrary, their life is a contradiction of every protestation they make in prayer. But this is not all; these nominal Christians even dare to approach the Holy Eucharist. Their confessions are deceptions, and they deserve the reproach, “hypocrites,” for their repentance is only on their lips; in their heart, after confession, they are as great sinners as they were before it, and their Communion is a sacrilege. All they strive after is to make others believe that, as Christians, they live in the state of divine grace, and that they sanctify themselves by the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. Hence, their life as Christians is literally: “hypocrisy.”
Catholics living thus deserve to be called what Christ called the Pharisees: “Whitewashed sepulchers.” They appear outwardly religious and devout, make the sign of the cross, yet in their heart they crucify the Lord, and live thus year after year. Does not a Christian living in this manner deserve the reproach: Pharisee! Hypocrite! Alas! who can doubt that the greater part of the children of the Church endeavor to appear better than they really are? But for this reason, they generally bear also the other marks for which Christ reproves the Pharisees.
They are deficient in love of truth; they hide their wickedness from themselves and others; they merely affect a desire to know God’s will, and serve Him in truth. The Pharisees but seldom approached Christ to hear the Word of Truth. They derided those who, filled with astonishment, exclaimed: ” Never did man speak like this man!” They said with pride and contempt: “Which of us hears Him?” And when they listened to the Lord it was only to scoff at His doctrine, not to recognize it and to live in accordance with its precepts.
It is the same with these Catholics that affect piety. They say with their lips: I believe, while their conduct gives their words the lie. They are loath to hear the Word of God, and if, at times, they listen to a sermon in order to keep the reputation of being Christians, then they criticise what they hear, and apply it to others, not to themselves. We shall understand this hypocrisy better if we recall some of the principal dogmas of our holy faith, which exercise the most influence upon our life as children of God.
Faith teaches us that we are upon earth only pilgrims preparing ourselves for an approaching eternity. Every Christian, as such, confesses this with his lips; but what does his life say? If it contradicts his statement, it shows him to be guilty of deception. Only too frequently the Christian’s most strenuous exertions are not directed to the acquisition of treasures for heaven, but rather to accumulate riches for his earthly existence, and to enjoy them as long as possible. He is a whited sepulcher, a pharisee! The sinner acknowledges, as a Christian, that man must be in the state of grace, in order to gain merits for heaven, and that, according to the holy will of God, he must fulfill the duties of his station with the right intention, and to the best of his ability. He acknowledges this with his lips, but what does his life say? It contradicts him, and lays bare his falsehood. He lives in sin, and what he does is not done because it is the will of God, but because it is his own good pleasure. He is a whited sepulcher, a pharisee!
The sinner acknowledges, as a Christian, the number and greatness of the dangers that threaten his salvation; he repeats the words of the Lord: “Many are called; but few are chosen,” yet he lives as carelessly as if no danger existed for his salvation. He is a liar, a whited sepulcher, a pharisee! He confesses with his lips that there is a God who will one day judge him, that an eternity awaits him, an eternity either of inexpressible happiness, or of never-ending torment; and yet all these truths exercise no influence upon his life. He has no love of truth. He is a pharisee!
The Pharisees prayed and gave alms, but only to be seen by men and to please them. In their hearts they were full of malice, and without love for their neigh bor. They especially persecuted those who told them the truth openly as Christ did, and for this, overcome by envy and hatred, they crucified Him. How many who call themselves Christians, and who, as such, pray, and knowing the commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” do not care in the least for either the bodily or spiritual welfare of their neighbor, but think only of themselves and of their own individual well-being! All who live in such a manner, who have such a disposition, merit the reproach: hypocrite! pharisee!
On the whole, how very few Christians exist who do not desire to appear better than they really are; and how many deserve the reproach of Christ which we find in the Apocalypse: “Thou hast the name that thou livest, but thou art dead!” You Christian, you who live otherwise than you profess before men, the name you deserve is: hypocrite, pharisee, whited sepulcher! From today love truth, and follow it earnestly in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!
“For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
The Pharisees were zealots of the law which Christ came to fulfill; but notwithstanding an exterior show of reverence and obedience, in reality they dishonored and disobeyed that law by acting against its spirit. Unfortunately, there are also among the children of the Church many who profess to recognize the divine origin of the Church, and pretend to love and reverence her; but it is only deception, and they, too, deserve to be termed: “hypocrite!” Their life gives the lie to their words. They are not truthful, they are not honest, they are not sincere; they never reflect seriously, nor inquire earnestly as to how they must live in order to be able to call themselves, in the presence of God, children of Christ’s Church, with the hope of one day entering as such into the joys of eternal life.
But not only this, there are even in our days men who pretend to be Christians, yet are, in truth, worse than the Pharisees. O Mary, thou whom Elizabeth called blessed, because thou didst not only believe, but didst live in accordance with thy belief, pray for us, that in our efforts after true holiness of life we may receive the spirit of the true children of God! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, to the greater glory of God!
I say: There are, unfortunately, many children of the Church who have great reason to take to heart the warning of Christ: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is hypocrisy, mock-holiness. Many who call themselves Catholics do not seek the truth in earnest, and consequently have no real charity in their hearts either towards God or their neighbor. They are satisfied with an external fulfillment of the exercises of devotion, and of the natural duties of politeness to their neighbor, and hence they appear to be much better than they really are.
In our day the evil is still greater, and is spreading with fearful rapidity. There are men who, born of Catholic parents, baptized in the Catholic Church, brought up, perhaps, in the Catholic faith, live in utter neglect of the commands of God; nay, they have long since forgotten them; they do not hesitate to deny the existence of God and all revelation. These are they whom the Apostle in his Epistle to the Thessalonians calls: “Apostate from faith in faith;” and he gives this state as one of the signs of the coming antichrist.
The Pharisees at least prayed, and made a show of devotion, in order to gain the esteem and good-will of others; but there are in our day men calling themselves Christians and Catholics who, from year’s end to year’s end, never say a prayer. They know not what prayer is; they never think of God, and say, impudently: Man, help thyself; and then God will help thee! There is no Providence! They never mention the name of the Lord, except in cursing and blasphemy, and who knows how often they do this every day?
The Pharisees at least kept the Sabbath, and in this way at least made some external declaration of their faith in God, and in His revelation; but now there are men calling themselves Christians and Catholics who neglect the reverence due to the Lord’s day. They work on it as on any other day, and if perforce they abstain from labor, Sundays and holydays are spent in idleness, drinking and riot, so that on these very days which the Lord has reserved to Himself as time sacred to prayer and good deeds, He is offended more than on all the others of the week. Sunday is not spent in the service of God, but in the slavery of the devil. Christians who so act are much worse than the Pharisees.
The Pharisees at least visited the temple; but there are Christians–they call themselves Catholics–who, for months, yes, years, do not go inside of a church, who assist once in a while at Holy Mass, never hear the Word of God, and never approach the sacred table, where they may be nourished and sustained to resist the attacks of their spiritual enemies.
The Pharisees sometimes fasted, and performed works of mortification. In our days there are Christians–they call themselves Catholics–who, far from fasting, or performing any work of self-abnegation, live in the unrestrained enjoyment of every sensual gratification; “whose God,” as St. Paul already complained, “is their belly;” who, far from edifying their neighbor, give scandal by drinking and dancing in bar-rooms and low dancing-halls.
The Pharisees at least gave alms, although they did it only to attract attention, and to acquire the reputation of being charitable. There are today men that call themselves Christians and Catholics who heartlessly turn away all the poor from their door, or withhold from the workman his well-earned wages, although they pretend to take a great interest in suffering humanity, and are ever ready with loud protestations of philanthropy.
The Pharisees at least aided by their offerings the temple and its servants. But in our time there are Christians, calling themselves Catholics, who do nothing for the Church and her ministers, and in this respect, also, they are far worse than the Pharisees. Instead of helping to spread God’s kingdom, they persecute it in all possible ways, and they would entirely exterminate it from the earth had they the power to do so. They not only do nothing themselves for the Church and her ministers; but when they see others willing to give, they laugh at them, and endeavor to prevent them. These men, though they call themselves Catholics, wish, in their hearts, that there were no churches, nor priests nor schools, so that they might, with a safer conscience, escape the burthen of maintaining them.
They call themselves Christians, Catholics, and yet they join secret societies, whose only aim, only work, is to destroy the Church and Christianity. They spend their time in reading frivolous, godless books and pamphlets, and miserable newspapers, which slander, deride and ridicule the Church! Oh, what blindness! To inexperienced youth especially, is intercourse dangerous with this class of nominal Christians, these whited sepulchers.
When men–who are not children of the Church by baptism–deride and slander her and her ministers, and her doctrines, the evil is not half so great as when it is done by those who pretend to be Christians, who have once led a Christian life, but who have run into the errors of unbelief, and have ranged themselves under the standard of infidelity. Woe to all who live thus, and call themselves Catholics! On the day of judgment they will fare worse than he Pharisees! Amen!
“Unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees
you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”–Matt. 5.
How earnest is the admonition of Christ in today’s Gospel! It is a threat of the coming Judge: “You shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What a threat, did it even only concern the loss of heaven; for, what a pitiful state not to see God, not to be united to Him, and not to partake of His infinite bliss ; to be deprived of the communion of the angels and saints, and of the possession and enjoyment of all created pleasures! This is not all, how ever; for, if we enter not heaven, what remains to us? Answer: “Hell!”–Great God, what a threat!
How important it is, therefore, for us to know what our justice must be to surpass that of the Pharisees, and give us the right and the hope to gain heaven, and escape the danger of eternal destruction! I say: to comprehend this, we need only consider the opposite of what Christ blames the Pharisees for, namely: If we practice those virtues which are the opposite of the faults and sins of the Pharisees, our justice will be greater than theirs, and will not be hypocrisy, but truth. O Mary, thou who, with the entire truthfulness of thy love to God, didst fulfill His holy will, bless our longing to secure our salvation by the practice of true justice! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, to the greater glory of God!
Hypocrisy is that for which Christ especially reproaches the Pharisees; that they endeavor to appear other than they really are, and that they do not love truth. Already the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, called them “vipers,” and in a like manner the complaint and reproach of another John, St. John the Evangelist, is addressed to them, when he says: “Men loved darkness rather than the light.” Why? “Because,” as Christ says, “their works were evil.” They were whited sepulchers. Behold now, on the contrary, in what justice consists, that true justice which opens the gates of heaven to us!
It is the love of truth and the desire to know it, to put it in practice with candor and simplicity of soul. He who seeks truth earnestly will find it, and when he has found it he will prize it highly, and will open his heart that it may therein find an abode. Hence, St. Paul, speaking of the armor of God, mentions, especially, the girdle of truth. To understand more clearly how important is the love of truth, we have only to think how powerful is the influence on our lives of those truths that holy faith places before our eyes in regard to our last aim and end, what a light they shed upon our path, and how potent are the means of salvation which God has given the children of His Church to serve Him truly, and to fulfill with determination, energy and fidelity, His most holy will!
But that this effect may in reality be produced, we must not confess the truths of our holy faith only with the lips, but we must ponder them with earnest attention. Jeremias already complained: “With desolation is all the land made desolate; because there is none that considereth in his heart.” How powerfully holy faith would admonish us to follow Christ with the zeal of the saints, did we but seek truth with a yearning heart! “Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile,” said Christ of Nathanael. Would to God that this could be said of every child of the holy Church; but alas, in this respect many are woefully deficient!
We believe, but we do not consider earnestly enough the influence faith ought to exercise upon our lives, in order that our belief may be meritorious, and our lives correspond with it. The life of the Pharisees was a life of habit, it was a life which rested on the appearance rather than on the practice of virtue. They contented themselves with fulfilling the letter of the law, and neglected the spirit thereof.
Quite different should our life and our justice be. Unfortunately, this is not very often the case with unspiritual Christians. They live outwardly, from habit, a Christian life. They pray from habit. They hear Mass from habit. They receive the Sacraments, but all only from habit. The soul of a Christian, acting from mere routine, is benighted; he hardly thinks what sources and means of divine grace all these acts of piety embrace for the faithful imitation of Christ and the working out of eternal salvation.
The life of Christ gave offense to the Pharisees–they observed it, but did not dream of taking it for their model. We, as Christians, should do exactly the contrary. The life of Christ, the example of His virtues, should be the model and rule of our whole lives, from the cradle to the grave. The righteousness of the Pharisees knew no such guide. The Pharisees were pleased to parade their piety about, and to pray in the streets. Such a prayer was surely no elevation of the heart to God, no intercourse, no union with God, but a soulless motion of the lips.
Shall our prayer be genuine, and our justice work the sanctification of our lives? then we must follow the admonition of Christ: If you will pray, lock yourself in your closet and pray in secret and with a collected spirit. That we may thus truly and effectively pray, we must approach the Lord personally in the Most Blessed Sacrament. We must go to Him, and say in the words and with the feelings of the Apostles: “Master, teach us how to pray.” Happy those who act thus; they will find in their life the truth of the words of St. Augustine: “He who prays well, lives well.”
Besides prayer, we also need the spirit of mortification in order to follow Christ. The Pharisees contented themselves with corporal fasting; but if our justice is to be greater than theirs, then we must not only restrain our appetite for food, but must live, in general, in a spirit of Christian self-abnegation. We must fast with the eyes, the ears; in fact, with all our senses, and must practice with the greatest diligence interior mortification.
The Pharisees were filled with self-love, and puffed up with self-esteem on account of their justice. They knew nothing of love for their neighbor from the love of God. We must practice with deep humility corporal and spiritual works of mercy, from love of God and our neighbor, if our justice is to exceed theirs. The Pharisees, further, allowed no occasion to pass of laboring in opposition to Christ, and undermining His work.
Shall our justice be greater than theirs? then we must support the Church of Christ, and endeavor to disseminate and defend her as much as possible. How many an opportunity to do this every one of us has, if he only desires earnestly, as a true child of the Church, to interest himself in her welfare and propagation! Zeal for souls! what a pledge of that justice which will open to us the gates of heaven! Christian, how is your heart affected by this sermon? Does it concern you? Is your justice greater in every point than that of the Pharisees?
This final question your own conscience must answer! Amen ! (1)
Image: Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees, artist: Jacques Joseph Tissot, circa 1886 and 1894 (5)