Memorial of Saint Monica
(II Thessalonians 1:1-5.11-12; Matthew 23:13-22)
We meet Jesus today in Jerusalem. He has just thrown the money changers out of the Temple and is waiting to encounter the wrath of the religious leaders. In the meantime, he criticizes the Pharisees for their erroneous teaching.
It may be that Jesus was not as irate with the Pharisees as this reading indicates. After all, the Gospel of Matthew was written fifty years after Jesus died. By then Judaism was reforming itself after the Romans demolished the Temple. Its religious leaders, predominantly Pharisees, had to make distinctions between Jews fully-committed to Torah and synagogue attendees who put their faith in Jesus. They would persecute the latter in a way similar to the Inquisition when the Church punished false Catholics. Matthew shows how Jesus would have defended his followers if he were present in the late first century. But we should listen to Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees as a critique of religious zealotry in general.
Jesus’ first charge is that Pharisees deprive people of access to the Kingdom. In other words he implies that the Jewish leaders actually prevent people from knowing God! Priests who have abused children sexually and thereby have created grave doubts not only in their victims but also in society fall under this weighty condemnation. Then Jesus criticizes the Pharisees’ proselytism which makes fanatics of religious converts. We might find a contemporary parallel 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 definitely works through the Church and its sacraments, but we cannot deny the possibility of His accomplishing salvation through other means. Finally, Jesus condemns the way Pharisees manipulate the law by drawing meaningless distinctions between gold and Temple or between gift and altar. Teachers who say that the unmarried may have sex as long as it is done “responsibly” or that one can “make up” for missing mass on Sunday by attending mass on a weekday make the same kinds of wrongful distinction as the Pharisees here.