Saturday, 11 May 2013


In the last issue of Orthodox Tradition, one of the few publications I subscribe to, there was an interesting entry on ‘Orthopraxis’ by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, a person always worth reading whatever the topic. Though not quoted there, the gist of what he writes can be summed up by the famous dictum of St. Maximos the Confessor – “Theology without praxis is the theology of demons” - “It means nothing to believe correctly if that belief has no consequences in action and for the way that we live.” He identifies Orthopraxis with such “internal” matters as “repentance for our failings, the hard rule of forgiving others as we find fault with ourselves” but also “external” things, “how we speak, walk, dress and groom ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we eat (not to mention, of course, how we worship).” When it comes to these external matters, warnings or accusations of ‘Pharisaism’ invariably come up, and perhaps rightly so, since Christ is quite clear as to what kind of future life shall await us if we do not heed the warnings He gave the Pharisees. Indeed, we shall be judged more severely, having been called to a higher standard. That being said, however, I feel the term is often misunderstood, misused, and at times even used as a stick to beat others over the head with (or should I say a plank, which, once removed from the eye, is used to punish those with motes in theirs).

So what is Pharisaism? Doctrinally speaking, it meant belief in the resurrection of the dead, for which reason St. Paul exclaimed “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). This is obviously not what those who use it today have in mind. Rather, it refers to the admonitions of Christ, particularly those in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. They are condemned for keeping the minutiae of the Law, but neglecting its true meaning, for taking care to appear outwardly righteous while neglecting to purify their hearts, for performing prayers and good deeds out of love of self rather than of God and their neighbour, of honouring the past prophets while cursing those who in their own day followed their example. In short, for their hypocrisy and pride. Never does Christ suggest that observance of externals was wrong in and of itself. Only when they are done for the wrong reasons, or at the expense of more important things do they become a problem: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).

Such hypocrisy is something we must always be on guard against, and something most probably struggle with at times (I certainly do). This I don’t dispute. Yet there are those who, presumably able to discern the hearts of men, disparage all forms of Orthopraxis as Pharisaism, as if all who fast regularly or strictly, who dress modestly, who don’t participate in certain social activities, are somehow doing it out of a self-righteous display or in judgment of those who don't, rather than out of a humble desire to improve their lives, grow closer to God, and mind their own business in the process. I have on numerous occasions seen people, knowing full well a person was observing Lent, proceed to offer them food they knew they wouldn’t wish to eat. When the person declined with a polite “no thanks, I’m not hungry”, they were met with hostility and accusations of self-righteousness. The prayer of the Publican is no longer “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18), but “God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee”. In other words, the spirit of Pharisaism is not found only in the observance of externals, nor does the observance of externals necessitate Pharisaism. Indeed, the very purpose of external observances is to “infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance” and, when properly understood, serves to aid in the purification of the soul and to cultivate humility, repentance, love for God and neighbour, which will in turn be reflected in one’s behaviour. 

There seems also to be an artificial separation between “good behaviour” and “religious behaviour”. Social work is good, everyone likes that, but prayer and fasting is for the Pharisee. Yet Christ said exactly the same about giving alms as He did about prayer and fasting – do not do it to be seen by men. The call to do things without pride and hypocrisy should not be confused with a call to stop doing them altogether. Praying for those who hate you is Orthopraxis, so is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, as well as lesser matters like dressing modestly, observing the fasts as far as our strength allows, keeping a rule of prayer, and attending church. Perhaps it’s the name that throws people. Much in the same way as books on Orthodoxy are not actually books on Orthodoxy (i.e. Christianity), but only on those aspects of Orthodoxy which differ from Protestantism or Catholicism (and often just the external ones), so perhaps Orthopraxy is not understood as life according to the Gospel, but the observance of practices at odds with those of heterodox Christians (fasting and prostrations).

The Pharisee can just as easily be the one who eats as it can be the one who abstains (cf. Rom 14:3). Let’s therefore not allow "Pharisaism" to undermine the importance of Orthopraxis to our Christian life and relationship with Christ - either to justify our own laxity or weakness, or to undermine the struggles of others - all the while taking care not to think ourselves righteous or judge those whose conduct is different from our own. 

No comments:

Post a Comment