Wednesday of Week 21 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 23:27-32

We come today to the last two of the seven ‘Woes’ which Jesus throws against pharisaism.  Again it is an attack on hypocrisy and he gives two examples:

6. You are like whitewashed tombs…(vv 27-28)

On the one hand he compares the Pharisees to “whited sepulchres” (“whitewashed tombs” in the NRSVue translation), a phrase (like many others) that has found its way into everyday English through the King James version of the Bible. In other words, they are like the tombs that people in Palestine could often see spotlessly clean in their whitewashed stones, but which inside were full of the decaying and rotting bodies of the dead. 

One reason they were whitewashed was because a person who unwittingly stepped on a grave became ritually unclean.  Whitewashing made them more visible, especially in the dark. The Pharisees put on an external show of religious perfection down to the tiniest detail, but inside their hearts and minds were full of pride and hatred and contempt for their fellow men.  It was epitomised in the story that Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray.  The sanctimonious prayer of the Pharisee was:

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11)

It was, of course, to some extent true, but it closed his mind to a different kind of sin altogether—his pride and imagined self-sufficiency.  As Jesus will say in another place, the greatest sin of the pharisaical is their sheer blindness, the inability to see themselves for what they really are. This, I suppose, is the most dangerous sin of the pious in any age, and yet the one least likely to be confessed and repented. And it can happen to any of us.

7. You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous…(vv 29-32)

Mention of tombs leads Jesus to comment on the Pharisees’ pride over the tombs they have built in memory of the prophets and other holy people.  They congratulate themselves that, if they had been present, they would never have partaken in the actions which brought persecution and death to the prophets.  Yet here is Jesus, the prophet of all prophets, whom they are preparing to kill. 

In the last verse of our reading, Jesus tells them to go ahead and complete the murdering of the prophets, referring to what is going to happen to himself.  Another classic example of the blindness of the self-righteous. The more committed we are to our Christian faith and to the behaviour that it expects, the greater the danger that we, too, can fall into the same trap and see ourselves on a higher level than others whose behaviour we deplore and perhaps even attack. 

Whole groups of such people have been appearing in recent years, people who claim to know the Church better than the Pope, who still deplore the “heresies” of the Second Vatican Council, who close themselves off into elitist groups afraid of being contaminated not only by the ‘world’, but even by other Catholics!

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