“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.”Matthew 23: 25-6
A wise teacher used to remind us that “the unconscious knows only one movement and it is discharge.” When Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes that they are hypocrites, he is saying to them that they are refusing to recognize and know themselves. They are busy keeping everyone in order, maintaining their superiority over the weak and sinful others while mindless of the “inside of their own cup.” While they make sure that the outside of their cup is spotless, they ignore the reality that inside they are “full of plunder and self-indulgence.”
I remember as a student that our high school religion text, its tone now so clearly recognizable as anti-Semitic, used to refer to the scribes and Pharisees as “the Temple Gang.” This was a way of re-writing the gospels to have dark antagonists against the pure protagonist of Jesus. Even as we became slightly less prejudiced and somewhat more enlightened, there was still a tendency to read the gospels externally, so that the Pharisees represented evil and Jesus, and often the disciples, the good. It was quite clear with whom we were to identify, thus, in actuality, becoming “Pharisees” ourselves. In verse 26, Matthew has Jesus change the plural Pharisees to the singular Pharisee. Here it is clear that Jesus is addressing the “Pharisee” in each of us. He is re-directing our attention, from managing the outer world to awakening to the inner one.
It is not pleasant for us to realize that we too are filled with “plunder and self-indulgence,” and that when we give vent in our words and actions mindless of our own unconscious we are being motivated by our own self-indulgence and violence. Our own infra-conscious is driven by our instinct for survival and pleasure. How precisely we see survival and self-interest, and therefore the violent means we are prepared to use to ensure it, differ depending on our own biographies. For the scribes and Pharisees who are confronting Jesus, their survival meant their position in the religious culture. The violent judgments they would make of others were their way of securing and insuring their superior position and so of denying their own sin and culpability, their own selfishness and violence.
What do we do to avoid feeling our own poverty and lack, our own sense of shame and humiliation? How do we attempt to control others and the world so that we need not experience our own fears of vulnerability and desperation? The answers to these questions are to be found by an honest examination of our actions. How must we order our daily lives, with violence if necessary, in order to feel okay? And how do we react when others, or circumstances threaten that sense of power and order in any way?
The gospels show us the answer of certain cultural and religious leaders in Jesus’ time. His very being is such a threat to them that he must be destroyed. Recently I participated in a meeting at which a resolution was submitted that suggested that a work that had been engaged in for many months was to be “abolished.” What moves us to want to “abolish” or “kill off” something or someone? Clearly it is the real or perceived threat that it poses to us. Jesus’ teaching, and even more his very life, is a threat. We see that threat grow in today’s gospel as Jesus dares to question their motives. He shows them that he knows “their hearts” which are full of plunder and self-indulgence. And so, they want to eliminate him.
This feeling is not foreign to me. I don’t want those who upset me to be around me, or even within my awareness. Many years ago a therapist said to me, “You don’t like to be countered, do you?” I do not readily receive the critique of myself from others. Even now, although I hope to a lesser degree, even mild disagreements can become, for me, a source of insecurity. To the degree this is true, it is clear that my own foundations are quite shaky, and my trust is not, as the Psalms teach, solidly placed on the Lord. Rather, they remain too dependent on what others see in and of me, of the way I am recognized by the others. This is precisely the problem with the Pharisees. They live perennially in the fear of their own internal emptiness. If their power and control is threatened, they will seek to abolish what or whoever constitutes the threat that would evoke their own awareness of that emptiness.
Until we come to a recognition of the existence of our own unconscious, we have not even begun to pray. It is our fear of the truth of our own unconscious that is, perhaps, the greatest obstacle to prayer. We cherish our illusions about ourselves because we fear the truth of ourselves. As the same teacher used to tell us, “Stop pretending that you are nice. You’re not.” Absent the kind of humility, that is living in the truth, that true self-presence and prayer makes possible, we live violent lives. Our need to manage the world requires that we push others around. We keep others in the place that we need them to be. This is what the Pharisee in us does by judging and diminishing them. We create relationships that are functionally and emotionally useful to us, that is that support our self-deceptions, and we try to abolish whoever or whatever challenges our self-understanding. We move towards those who gratify us and we move against or away from those who don’t. This is the way of the unconscious.
Those teachings of Jesus and of the all the great Wisdom Traditions that most go against our grain are the summons to the truth of things, especially to those truths that we seek to ignore. No less than the Pharisees, the Pharisee in us tends to obsess over the little faults of others lest we be forced to recognize our own lack of “judgment, mercy, and fidelity.” It is in true prayer that we learn to judge aright, and not to follow the direction of our own unconscious. The judgments we make based on our unconscious are always motivated by our deep craving for security and gratification. These drives in us necessarily exist for our own self-preservation. They do not in themselves, however, provide a sufficient horizon for true appraisal. When the Pharisees are constantly judging others and increasing their burdens, they are doing so for their own sake, not for the good of others. This is why Jesus tells us that we are to lift the burdens of others, to bear one another’s burdens, so that the other is not merely an object in our own self-project but another like us. We are to judge in mercy and fidelity because that is how we judge in the realm of spirit, not merely in the realm of the vital and the functional. In the realm of the unconscious, we are prone to judge precisely out of our lack of mercy and fidelity. It is out of our inability to forgive ourselves (and God) for who we are that leads us to so severely judge others. We scapegoat others to avoid facing ourselves.
The most difficult people to live and work with are those who fail to recognize their own unconscious. It is not true of any of us that “what you see is what you get.” We are always more complex and hidden than this. The fact that unreflectively we live for our own survival and self-interest is not the problem The problem is our denial of this truth. The scribes and Pharisees are “religious” people. The great danger in being “religious” is that we can take on the ideal and then pretend it is our actual life. To do this requires that we dissociate more and more from our own unconscious drives and cravings. To be the ideal requires the repression of all in us that is not in conformity with that ideal. This is the source of much violence in us. Such repression results in our judging others in the light of an ideal to which, to paraphrase Jesus in the gospel today, we ourselves are not faithful.
In the gospel of John, Jesus tells the Samaritan Woman: “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23-4) It is not a matter of where we pray or even our idea of the God to whom we are praying. It is rather a matter of praying “in Spirit and in truth.” Unconsciously we are afraid of the truth, for it “feels” to us to be all too much for us. So, we try to create our own truths in multiple ways. All of these untruths are in service to our drive to survive as pleasurably as possible. Jesus tells this Pharisee in us that there is another way, a way of judgment, mercy, and fidelity. By awakening to the truth, we can judge aright, and in the judgment recognize not fear and punishment but the mercy and fidelity of God. God is faithful to us, even in those places in us where we feel it impossible to be faithful and merciful. We need not be imposters for God to love us and have mercy on us. And with God as our rock, we can even dare to be who we truly are before the world.
It is a well established psychological fact that actions deliberately and consciously performed are motivated by unconscious urges, are controlled by emotions long buried in the recesses of our being; so that, what appear to be actions done in the full light of consciousness, are but the shadows and symbols of buried urges which now suddenly become active beyond the reach of our conscious will. What appeared, therefore, as straightforward acts consciously controlled, are shown to be, as it were, a mirror held up to the true inner reality of ourselves. Thus we come to realise, with a rush of panic, that what we regard as actions, posited by us are in reality but aspects of our real selves: they are us.Karl Rahner, On Prayer, pp. 10-11