Wednesday of the 21st Week in Ordinary Time – Mt 23:27-32
In today’s Gospel we see that Jesus is dead set, as it were, to expose the scribes’ and Pharisees’ hypocrisy, as He draws two comparisons regarding tombs: first, He calls His listeners “whitewashed tombs,” and, second, He says that they “bear witness against themselves” because they build tombs to the prophets their ancestors killed. We can consider, first, what these two references mean and, second, how the lessons that Jesus wants to teach can be applied to our own lives.
First, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs,” saying they look nice on the outside, performing good deeds, but on the inside are full of filth. In the same way, tombs would be decorated with marble and finery, whitewashed to look very white, but inside would contain only nasty, dry bones. In a commentary attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, the author writes that the bodies of the righteous are called “temples,” because the soul is alive and well, governing the body, and that God dwells in the righteous. However, the bodies of sinners are called tombs, because the soul is dead, and God is not there. For this reason, he writes, “Just as a tomb appears beautiful on the outside as long as it is closed, but if it is opened, it is horrible, so also the imitators of the good are praiseworthy as long as they are not known, [meaning, that their sinful deeds and wickedness are hidden], but once they have been recognized, they are found to be abominable.”
The second comparison is perhaps a little harder to grasp: how does the building of tombs bear witness against the present age? Again, the author of the commentary writes that “the Jews always worshiped past saints and despised present ones, or rather, they persecuted and hated living saints and were friendly to dead ones. They could not endure the rebukes of the prophets and so persecuted and killed them. For to those who wish to live in an evil fashion a rebuke always seems to be hostile. . . . But afterwards, when their children were born, they understood the faults of their ancestors, and so, grieving for the death of the innocent prophets, they built their monuments and yet themselves likewise persecuted and killed their own prophets who rebuked them for their sins. For one quickly understands another’s fault but his own with difficulty.” In this way, Jesus is telling them that they are just like their fathers: they condemn Him, who points out their sins, but love the prophets of old.
So, what does this mean for us? Both comparisons have a point for us. Regarding the first, in the same commentary attributed to John Chrysostom, the author asks, “Tell me, O hypocrite, if it is good to be good, why do you not wish to be what you appear? But if it is bad to be bad, why do you wish to be what you do not wish to appear?” The warning we can take from this is the need to be consistent and coherent; if we want to be good and holy, it’s not enough simply to look that way. We must really be holy.
Likewise, regarding the second, the same author comments: “When you hear someone blessing the teachers of old, test him to see what he is like around his own teachers. For if he bears them and honors them with whom he lives, doubtlessly he would have honored the teachers of old if he had lived with them. But if he despises his own teachers, truly he would have despised also those if he had lived in their day. For every correction is like other testings. Just as every testing builds the faithful even more but further destroys the unbelievers, so also every rebuke of discipline makes a religious person and God-fearer better, but it disturbs the irreligious and devil person and forces him to become worse. Therefore, just as a potter’s vase is tested by fire, so also a good heart is known by a rebuke.”
There is a lot to think about in this profound commentary, but we can consider the following: how do we put up with those around us, especially those who rebuke us or try our patience? How do we deal with corrections (especially unjust ones) and disappointments? What is our attitude like towards others? What is our attitude and our reaction when we receive insults and corrections?
Today, through the intercession of Mary, Queen of All Saints, let us ask for the grace to be coherent in our lives with what we preach, and to accept corrections and rebukes with humility and the desire to grow in holiness.