Matt Harber column: Who are the hypocrites? Who are our neighbors?
Spoken from a church pulpit, it is an ethical warning: “We must be careful not to become Pharisees!” Typed into a religious Facebook forum, it is the ultimate put-down: “That’s pharisaical!” The adjective “pharisaical” means “marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.” It describes the “holier-than-thou” attitude of people who do not practice what they preach.
We derive this word from the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’s conflict with Jewish religious leaders—including a group called the Pharisees. The most famous (or infamous) of his criticisms appears in Matthew 23, where he scolds these teachers for their disingenuous neglect of the “weightier matters” of the Torah: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” The apparent connection Jesus draws between “Pharisee” and “hypocrite” has shaped Christian idiom, to the extent that these two terms are now practically synonymous.
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However, modern-day Christians should avoid this pejorative ethical use of “Pharisee” and “pharisaical,” on both historical and ecumenical grounds. For one thing, Jesus’s rebuke of the “scribes and Pharisees” had a limited target but an expansive application. Christian readers often get this backwards: we expand the original target of Jesus’s anger to include an entire