About 2000 years ago, the religious leaders in a minor corner of the Roman Empire noticed a strange and disturbing development.
A certain precocious young man was going about the country trash-talking them. He claimed they were hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached. He said they just painted their faces white to pretend they were fasting. He accused them of caring more about material gain than about anything else they pretended to care about. And he called them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
He even had the audacity to overturn their money-changing tables in the temple, saying that religion wasn’t supposed to be a front for greed. And how dared he allege that rich people would find it extremely difficult, even impossible, to get into heaven?
Clearly, the only solution was to have this young man captured and crucified like a criminal.
Those religious leaders were known as the Pharisees, and that young man’s name was Jesus. You might have heard of him.
Of course, you know how this story goes. Jesus became the foundation of the largest religion the world has ever known, and he remains the inspiration for millions of people across the globe. And as for the Pharisees, well, they went down in history as the corrupt religious hypocrites they were.
Jesus, you could say, got the last laugh.
If only that was the end of the story. Sadly, of course, it is not. They may not call themselves “Pharisees” anymore but they can still be found, like zombies risen from the dead, causing havoc in spiritual and religious communities; and, indeed, on the world stage itself.
As John Acton said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There are few statements more universally agreed upon by all corners of society. The corrupting nature of power is so profound that even spirituality – the very project of taming the ego and transforming you into a better, wiser human being – can be co-opted and turned into a prop for the ego. As a result, Pharisees continue to resurface in every nation and every age.
There aren’t a thousand ways that this tragic irony plays out. There appear to be just three.
Do you crave material wealth and possessions but want to justify it all as somehow holy and righteous? Then spiritual materialism is for you! We have a variety of packages to suit your unique style and taste. Order now and we’ll throw in a smug superiority complex absolutely free!
Yes, yes, I know, “spiritual materialism” is an oxymoron. Spirituality is about the achievement of internal goals, like becoming a wiser, happier, better person, resilient in the face of the human condition and life’s inevitable setbacks. Materialism, by contrast, is about the achievement of external goals like wealth. But don’t that stop you; thousands are already cashing in on the scam!
Why not capitalise on the current mindfulness industry? Don’t worry about the deep, transformative power of mindfulness, just let those dollar signs light up in your eyes. It’s expected to be worth $9 billion globally by 2027, and is just one part of the wider $4 trillion well-being industry. This thing is trending. If you can write a book or film a documentary with “mindfulness” in the title, you will make bank.
Even if you have no genuine interest in mindfulness, there’s nothing to stop you from using it to sell countless material goods from cushions and scented candles to jeans and craft beer. Just advertise any random thing as “Mindfully Made” and watch your profit margins swell.
Or maybe your target market is more traditional. Christianity is still in vogue in plenty in places, and a great method of parting people from their hard-earned cash. Fair warning, though: you will face plenty of competition. Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Jesse DuPlantis – the list goes on and on – have already cornered the market with their “Prosperity Gospel,” the manic preachment that wealth is a sign of God’s favour. That’s right, they conflate material success with spiritual attainment and laugh all the way to the bank.
But apparently some people can’t get enough of being told that the more money they give to these men, the greater their “blessings” from heaven. If you want to get in on the scam, the return on investment looks promising. Just remind people that even Jesus and his apostles accepted donations – you know, so they could survive – and use that to justify why your followers should pay for your mansions and private jets.
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this all a bit risky? What if they actually read the things Jesus said, like “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth… But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” or “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”?
Well fear not. They don’t read the Bible. How else do you think churches have managed to build so many palaces and exploit so many people throughout the centuries, without even blushing? I mean, the medieval Church held “sales of indulgences,” literally selling places in heaven like tickets to a carnival. They never let minor details like the “Word of the Lord” stop them.
Or maybe your thinking is a little more “magical.” Well then you can’t go past the ever-popular “law of attraction,” which is spiritual materialism defined. Who needs wisdom to deal with the human condition when you can just “put the right thoughts out to the universe” and “attract” whatever you want? Forget showing people how to cultivate wisdom and compassion, just tell them to focus even more on their material wants and desires.
You can’t lose. If a “law of attraction” zealot gets what they want, then the magic is all proven to be real; and if it doesn’t work (because people don’t actually have super powers) then you can just blame the victim and tell them they weren’t doing it right. “The Secret” author Rhonda Byrne has already shown us the way, blaming the 2004 Asian tsunami on the over 200,000 dead, who clearly just weren’t putting the right thoughts out into the universe.
And the only up-front cost for any of this is your soul.
Or maybe money isn’t your goal. Maybe you are above such shallow, materialistic desires.
In fact, you are simply astounded at how highly spiritually evolved you have become. You have transcended the ego and its material cravings to such a degree that you wear your “egolessness” like a badge of honour, pitying the multitude of poor, less refined souls that you are good enough to grace with your presence every day. If humility was an Olympic sport, you just know you’d win gold every single time.
You might just be in for some spiritual narcissism.
Naturally, you will wear spiritual-styled garb to even the most mundane of gatherings. You will talk endlessly about your fascinating life-journey in the most “chic” spiritual language (like “life-journey”). The many hardships you’ve had to overcome in your life-journey have always been caused by other, less evolved people, and never by your own shortcomings. And of course, your social media feed is a tsunami of selfies with gurus, ashrams and temples.
Sure, most people will roll their eyes. But if you’re lucky, you may just find a few vulnerable individuals, maybe at some sort of cross-roads in their life, who are desperately searching for “the answer.” And what better answer could anyone have than you?
You don’t even have to tell them you are the answer; you just give them the answer through your lofty spiritual teachings. Your teachings could even be legitimate practices aimed at greater well-being; or they could be bizarre, out-of-this-world quackery that would make even Jim Jones blush. The sanity or madness of the practice isn’t the point; the point is just to get these people to see you as the Source of Light and Truth in the world, to validate your own inflated sense of self.
And if your teachings don’t work? No problem- either your troubled followers lack the requisite level of faith, or they just aren’t doing right. Either way, they only have themselves to blame, and must simply try harder. And if they break down completely, or come to their senses and leave? Well, they’re obviously just not yet “ready” for your advanced teachings.
Maybe in the next life, when their souls are more “evolved.”
To their credit, the spiritual materialist may actually have something useful to sell, and the spiritual narcissist does actually believe their own lies about themselves. But what if you’ve got nothing to offer? What if you’re just a run-of-the-mill two-faced lying con-artist and you know it?
Then spiritual hypocrisy is your thing.
You don’t practice what you preach. You say one thing and do another. Your mantra is “Do what I say and not what I do.” You are the modern-day Pharisee defined.
You will have plenty of company. The original Pharisees, obviously. But also, of course, many of those who claim to follow the man who called out the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Yes, you can be just like those 19th century Christian slave owners who preached “love your neighbour as yourself” while treating their fellow human beings as disposable farm tools. Or better yet, you can follow in the incomprehensible footsteps of Christians today who preach “love your enemies” while preaching hate against anyone with lifestyles or sexual preferences that are “different” to theirs.
That’s right, loudly claim to follow the man who asked, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” and then carry on your way with that log firmly in place.
the pharisee within?
Here’s an odd personal observation.
In the very act of writing this post I found myself feeling smugly above all the materialism, narcissism and hypocrisy that I’ve been describing. I congratulated myself on not being at all like the people I’m talking about. I marvelled at how I’ve kept such a great grip on my ego. Just how I’ve managed to stay so humble I don’t know…
Maybe you’re a better person than I am. Maybe you read all the above examples without thinking about how awesome you are in comparison. Or maybe it’s just the case that none of us are immune to the gravitational pull of the ego.
If life was black and white, it might be possible to just say that some people are “Pharisees” and some aren’t. However, it’s probably more true to say that each of us has a “Pharisee” inside us that, if we’re not careful, can grow to consume us until it becomes who we are.
Part of “spirituality” – real spirituality – is, of course, about taming the ego, silencing the inner Pharisee. In mindfulness, being content in the present moment means not needing the ego to be stroked in order to be happy or fulfilled. You can watch the inane babblings of the Pharisee within rise and fall with a sense of non-attachment, even humour.
Just watch out for that Pharisee’s response, though. Because it won’t argue with you. It won’t contend that it should be in charge. It won’t even really fight for its survival.
That’s not how it works.
It will just smile, and tell you how great you are for being so humble.