Wednesday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
(I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:27-32)
When I was a boy, my mother took my sister and myself to the cemetery to visit the graves of our dead father and brother. She would tell us not to walk on the graves of anyone out of respect for the dead. When Jesus speaks of “whitewashed tombs” in today’s gospel, he is referring to the Jewish practice of painting the tombs of the dead white. The purpose of such coloring was to warn the people not to go near those tombs. The Jewish concern was not respect for the dead, however, but dread of contamination by being in their proximity.
Jesus’ association of the scribes and Pharisees with “whitewashed tombs” constitutes an especially severe criticism. He is saying that they exhibit an apparent fairness, but the show only masks their spiritual rot. In other words, Jesus claims, the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites of a major order. Their crimes have been detailed throughout the gospel. They tie excessive burdens on the poor by a narrow interpretation of the law. They seek the adulation of the masses but lack an inner righteousness. They persecute him for curing the sick by saying that he is in league with the devil.
We should remember that not all the scribes and Pharisees were evil. Indeed, the Pharisaical movement saved the Jewish faith after the destruction of the Temple. Nevertheless, they badgered Jesus and were especially severe in persecuting his followers later in the first century. More importantly, however, we must take care that we do not become hypocritical like the Pharisees are portrayed in the gospels. We should strive to be understanding of others’ faults and ready to help them live virtuous lives.