“Foil” is an odd word. Readers probably understand “foil” as shiny thin wrap used for freezing meat, but it actually has many definitions. “Foil” may refer to one character in a story serving as contrast for another. “Foil” can also refer to a light sword used in fencing. Later I’ll return to this odd word “foil”.
“After Jesus had spoken,
a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home.
He entered and reclined at table to eat.
The Pharisee was amazed to see
that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.
The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees!
Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish,
inside you are filled with plunder and evil.
Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?
But as to what is within, give alms,
and behold, everything will be clean for you.” – LK 11:37-41
First, however, let’s examine St. Luke’s odd picture of the Pharisees. On the one hand, he depicts them as debating Christ, and like today, Christ often criticizes them. However, on the other hand, Pharisees are never mentioned in Luke’s account of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. Pharisees do not testify against Him nor gloat over Him.
Now Luke is a master story-teller, so why does he create a plot with Jesus as the protagonist and the Pharisees as the antagonist only to omit those very antagonists just at the most crucial moment of conflict? Why does he introduce new enemies of Christ with the high priest, King Herod and Pilate? It’s like building up to the final conflict between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, only to drop he-who-may-not-be-named and introduce Squidward Q. Tentacles.
Now remember the two other meanings of that odd word, “foil”? The Pharisees embody both. Today they serve as a contrast to Christ. However, they often also embody a fencing metaphor about that light sword called a foil. The metaphor is this: As two swords duel, both are sharpened. Two opponents, like Jesus and the Pharisees, are not necessarily enemies when they debate with the sharpness of a duel. Rather if they both seek truth, a sharp but respectful debate forces both opponents to think more deeply and articulate more clearly. After all, we wouldn’t have many of Jesus’ best parables had He not been forced to debate the Pharisees.
Perhaps the Pharisees were Jesus’ intellectual opponents, but not his enemies. Consider how they often show him respect as today inviting him into their home or calling him “Rabbi.” And recall that as today, they are usually respectful enough not to mention a critique even when they can’t help thinking it. Maybe they were sharply debating in a sincere quest for the truth. In such a sharp, but respectful debate, one may convince the other as Jesus does with Nicodemus. But even if they continue to disagree, the pursuit of truth is served when both intellects are sharpened. At least in Luke’s Gospel, perhaps the Pharisees are Jesus’ intellectual opponents in a mutual quest for truth, but not his enemies. That would explain why they duel with Christ, but never attempt a fatal blow like Herod and Pilate.
As we approach the US presidential election which seems to polarize both society and church, might we set the example by engaging in challenging but respectful debates as intellectual opponents, but never as enemies? Need we always agree or might we come to a deeper appreciation of the truth we both desire through a respectful debate of ideas without ever striking the fatal blow of personal insult or public shaming?
Allow me to remind you of the centuries-long debate between the Franciscans and Dominicans about the Immaculate Conception. Thomas Aquinas was a saint although he was on the wrong side of that debate. We can forgive him for not being smart enough to be a Franciscan! Seriously, in a world so much in need of truth in charity, might we consider that our intellectual or theological or political opponents are not enemies, and rather than condemning, engage them respectfully, which may sharpen our minds rather than our tongues. If we do that we’ll hear yet another definition of “foil.” When we pursue the truth through debate without hate, we make the devil cry: “Curses. Foiled again!”