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BE NOT LIKE THE PHARISEES

Father Francis's picture
Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Thess. 2:9-13 & Mt. 23:27-32

The Thessalonians are being told in today’s first reading by Saint Paul that he treated every one of them as a father. He taught and encouraged them to lead a life worthy of God. This they have done and he cannot stop thanking God that on hearing the message they accepted it as God’s message, and not some human thinking, and that it is still a living power among those who believe it.

The Pharisees once again are the subject of today's Gospel passage. They were a spiritual elite who traced their spiritual ancestry back to the days of the Maccabees: their forefathers suffered martyrdom rather than deny their faith. They were proud of their lineage and committed to supporting each other in living their faith. They devoted hours to learning the law which was not just the written precepts of the Old Testament but also the tradition of the elders. They were preoccupied with ritual purity.

In sharp contrast they considered Jesus to be dangerously lax - a liberal whose loose interpretation of the law and their traditions posed a serious threat. They were on a collision course with Jesus Whose 'woes' are better understood as lamentations. He grieves over their play-acting: their religion is a sham - they say one thing and do another. They are out of touch with reality. Jesus compares the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs. Tombs contain corruption and dead men’s bones. Before religious festivals they were whitewashed for two reasons, firstly, it was a way of making tombs that were drab look good, (Ezek. 13:8-16) and secondly, to draw pilgrim’s attention to them and so prevent them from stepping on the tombs and incurring ritual defilement (Num. 19:16). So were the Pharisees in God’s eyes, may appear holy in men’s eyes when in fact they are corrupt and lifeless.

Jesus' final woe goes right to the heart of their differences. He delivers His body-blow that must have hurt. The scribes and Pharisees give the impression of honouring their prophets but, in so many words, Jesus is saying, 'How ridiculous! When the One whom these prophets spoke about appears among you, what do you do? You want to kill Him!' They had lost sight of their need of salvation. Their religion had hardened their hearts. The practice of their faith, impressive as it was, had made God’s grace in them impenetrable.

We should not be too hasty to condemn the Pharisees. We can easily lose sight of our shared mission to build God's kingdom, judging by appearances rather than having hearts that love God and our neighbour. Jesus reminds us that the essence of what God wants is simple: it is “to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).

Lord Jesus, let us spend time every day in prayer, so that we may know God's forgiveness, and His love may be poured into our hearts. Help us to try and cleanse our hearts and minds of sinful desires, so that we can live as God wants.

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