Monday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
We meet Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has just cleansed the Temple and is waiting for the wrath of the religious leaders to fall upon him. In the meantime, he criticizes the Pharisees for their erroneous teaching. But we should not think that Jesus was historically as incensed with the Pharisees as today’s gospel indicates. The setting reflects the situation of the Church at the time of Matthew’s writing, perhaps fifty years after Jesus died. By then Judaism was reforming itself after the Romans demolished the Temple. Its religious leaders, predominantly Pharisees, had to draw lines in the sand to distinguish its full-fledged followers from those synagogue attendees who might be Christian at heart. They would persecute these Christians in a way similar to the Inquisition when the Church punished false Catholics. Matthew shows how Jesus might have defended his followers if he were present in the late first century. In any case we might listen to Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees as a critique of religious exploitation in general.
Jesus’ first charge is that Pharisees deprive people of access to the Kingdom. In other words the religious leaders actually prevent people from knowing God. Priest and ministers who have extravagant lifestyles or who have abused the faithful physically or mentally fall under this weighty condemnation. Then Jesus criticizes the Pharisees’ proselytism which makes fanatics of religious converts. We might find a contemporary example here in a convert from Islam or Buddhism who denies that the possibility of the Holy Spirit working within the hearts of their former religious associates. We know that the Holy Spirit works definitively through the Church and its sacraments, but we cannot deny the possibility of salvation to people outside the Church. Finally, Jesus condemns the way Pharisees manipulate the law by drawing meaningless distinctions between gold and Temple or between gift and altar. Catholic teachers who say that the unmarried may have sex as long as it is done “responsibly” or that one is free to miss mass on Sunday as long as he or she go once during the week make the same kind of wrongful distinction as the Pharisees here.