A general misconception about the Pharisees in the New Testament is that they and the high priests were the same people. Not only is this not true, but the pharisees were in fact opposed to the group to which many of the high priests were aligned: The Sadducees.
Why is this seeming trivia important? Because the two groups have direct parallels in the Church today. Indulge me for a bit, if you will, as I explain who these people were.
The Sadducees were a group within Judaism that supported only the written letter of the law and believed that anything beyond could safely be ignored; and what they defined as the “written word” included only the Pentateuch. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, angels and devils, and many did not even believe in the soul. Paying your dues to the temple and everything associated with honoring/obeying the priestly classes was given highest priority in their interpretation of the law. Coincidentally, most of them were in some way associated with the temple, the priestly classes, and those who profited when temple dues were paid (or when buying and selling was done in the temple).
In opposition to them stood the Pharisees. Unlike the Sadducees, their beliefs were not popular among the upper echelons of the temple and priestly classes. The people in this movement were primarily either non-priestly Jews or “lesser rabbis” (the way Christ was a lesser rabbi). They believed in the full extent of the law and that it should be practiced without question. They saw it as their duty to follow the law perfectly as the corrupt Sadducees were not doing so. They were the protectors of tradition and true Judaism as far they saw it.
Ultimately, what we see in both of these groups is legalism taken to both extremes: minimalism and maximalism. When Christ enters the scene He takes not the side of either faction, but makes enemies of both.
He throws out the buyers and sellers from the temple, He praises the woman who gives her one drachma over the rich man who gives a generous offer, and He outwits the Sadducees when they attempt the “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” trap. Christ and his followers are a threat to the Sadducees authority for He declares that the mere letter of the law is insufficient.
At the same time, this holy rabbi shockingly (at the time) does not take the side of Pharisees and denounces them constantly for both their excesses and for missing the point entirely. Most who have read the Gospels are more aware of the Pharisees than their opponents precisely because of all the times Christ calls them out (“hypocrites”, “swallowing the camel, but straining out the gnat”, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and lastly all of Matthew Chapter 23). This is necessary for, even though there are many holy and good Pharisees, a great many are spiteful angry hypocrites who care only about the external appearance of holiness.
It is no surprise then, that the Crucifixion sees the vast majority of the crowd fully hostile to the condemned Christ. He has refused to validate their positions and exposed their failings. He has taken neither of their side and refused to play their games. For that, He must die. In this one thing, the Pharisees and the Sadducees manage to find unity.
In our own time, one can see the echoes of these groups. We must beware the temptation to become a secular Sadducee, worried about appearing Catholic when convenient while putting our true allegiance to the world and our own lazy desires. We cannot allow a superficial worship of “obedience” to cloud our vision of what is right and what is wrong. This Lent, we must do more than the bare minimum.
On the same note, let us avoid becoming a Pharisee. Let us not look down on those who say… go to a different Mass than we do (“I go to a Latin Mass, aren’t I so much better than those Novus Ordo Catholics!” or “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of Catholics and instead go to a Praise and Worship Mass which is really the true best Mass ever!”). Let us not let our fasting be a point of pride for us and remember that it is better to be Charitable and not fast than to “abstain from beasts and birds but bite off the head of our brothers and sisters.”
And those of us who know Pharisees and Sadducees in the Church, let us pray for their reform and not hate them as some of them hate us.