Unmarked Graves

By Dane Neufeld

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke 11:37-52

37 While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. 42“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. 43Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. 44Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.”

45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” 46And he said, “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. 47Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49Therefore also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 52Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”


Many years ago I worked in Indonesia, and one hot afternoon in a village, I sat down on a stone beneath the shade of a few palm trees. When it was pointed out to me that I was sitting on a gravestone, I jumped up in horror. The local villagers smiled and were kind without being flippant: they recognized I was acting in ignorance.

The Pharisees and scribes are compared here to unmarked graves, places of ritual uncleanness that someone can stumble into without realizing it. In all the woes, Jesus is not suggesting that people trample over unmarked graves, or give up on tithing, or abandon the law. He is saying that the law should not be added to or used by leaders as a way to dazzle, confuse, or ensnare ordinary people. This would defy its purpose and the spirit in which it was given by God.

It is the corrupt and self-centered use of good things that Jesus is angered and saddened about. The scribes built tombs for the prophets while disregarding their message; they studied the law without love or concern for their listeners; they worried about the cleanliness of their hands while their hearts were disordered and chaotic. How confusing a landscape for someone to stumble into, where people say one thing but they mean another, where words and appearances are slippery and misleading.

Our churches should not be unmarked graves, where people find themselves tripped up in confusing judgments, resentments, and expectations. This does not mean we neglect or understate our deepest convictions and practices. But it does mean we should remember they are for the salvation of the world, for the stranger, the sinner, and whoever God calls through our doors.

The Rev. Dane Neufeld currently serves as the incumbent of St. James, Calgary, after serving 7 years in Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta.

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