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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Learning from the Pharisees

“The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.” (Lk 11: 39)

Almost fifty years ago the friars sent me to barber school. It was an interesting experience for many reasons. Almost all of the people we “practiced” on were street people and most of them were not very interested in a haircut, but in sneaking a drink of the Bay Rum tonic that we rubbed on people’s necks after a haircut. In any case, even today I notice people’s hair. As a barber, it is almost impossible not to look at the quality of the cut others have, and this lingering habit made me ask the question this morning: What are the things we pay attention to on a daily basis? Gardeners look at their flowers and plants. Cooks check the quality of the produce or the fruits they will use. Carpenters notice how well something is made.

You get the idea. We all pay attention to things according to our training or interest. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that a Pharisee was amazed that Jesus did not observe the washing rituals expected of observant Jews. Though the Pharisees were in many ways the liberals of their day since they valued the not only the Torah but the oral traditions that grew up around the Torah, they were also devoted to a careful, even obsessive, observance of the Laws of the Torah especially the ritual washing taught by the Rabbis. Unfortunately, like all of us, they sometimes spent so much time and effort in making sure that the ritual washing prescribed by the Torah was observed properly that they forgot the person doing the washing. The same thing can be true for barbers. We can spend so much time making a hair cut perfect that we ignore the sadness or joy that another is carrying, and that is the problem for the Pharisees and us.

It is one thing, as Luke suggests, being amazed that Jesus doesn’t wash properly, but it is another thing all together to ignore the power of Jesus presence, words and attitudes towards others. When an obsession about doing something right gets in the way of seeing and caring about the person in front of us, we fall into the fault that Jesus challenges in the Pharisees. A cook who slaves over a meal to make it perfect, but forgets that the purpose of the meal is to bring people together can easily miss the joy of those who have gathered.

Clearly, the gospel wants us to ask a simple question today: What gets in the way of our seeing the presence of God and the power of the spirit all around us? Examining this question with a peaceful heart can make all the difference in our relationships. If we are more interested in how much money someone else makes, the car they drive or the friends they have, we know our values have become skewed and we have to change.

Today ask God for the grace to be interested in each person you meet, to listen carefully to what they are not saying, and to celebrate who they really are.

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