By Elizabeth Baumann
Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 23:27-39
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 34Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
In today’s lesson, Jesus deals with the Pharisees’ assertion that if only they had lived in the time of the prophets, they would not have participated in stoning and persecuting them. Coming from those who will unjustly arrest, try, and have Christ crucified, the assertion is darkly ironic.
But the thing is: I think they believed it. Like a lot of us — we look at the sins of our ancestors and we can’t imagine condoning, much less participating. We mentally cast ourselves in the roles of the few who spoke up and fought against evil. But is that honest? Do we really know ourselves so much better than the Pharisees did?
Mark Twain once said, “When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” It’s good advice. Especially when we look back through history and see over and over that the majority tend to be blind to the evil in their midst, and that only a few tend to respond to God’s call to point it out. And often his messengers are easily discredited.
So what can we do? We can’t magically gain history’s hindsight on our present moment; we’ll always have blind spots and mixed motives. But we can be honest about that. We can admit that we’ve all failed in our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we can intentionally set out to do better, asking for his help. After all, he is the Lord who heals blindness, who gives new eyes to see.
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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