Today: Thursday, October 17, 2019

Rows Jesus had: The whitewashed sepulchres    (10/24/2010)


There are some insults you really have to admire. As a child, one of my favourites was “You steamin’ son of a cross-eyed peanut!”—although I can’t imagine why, looking back! A good one in the Bible was when Jesus called the Pharisees ‘whitewashed sepulchres’ (Matthew [NT] 23.27 – the old King James translations). I didn’t really understand it, but it sounded really fierce and accusatory. I secretly wanted to say to my teachers, ‘Don’t be such a whitewashed sepulchre!’ when they gave me bad marks in a test.

Now, though, I see that it was no laughing matter. Jesus was saying something really, really rude to the religious leaders when he said they were like tombs painted white. To put it in context, tombs were painted white so that people didn’t trip over them at night and therefore become ‘unclean’ through contact with the dead. He was basically saying that they were painted cover-ups of decay.

It would have been shocking and hard for them to hear, and it’s not surprising they got angry with him.

In Jesus’ day, religion was all-powerful. People did as they were told, and were immensely serious about pleasing God. Jesus criticised the leaders a number of times for the fact that they invented more and more complex ways for people to fulfil religious requirements while their own lives were far from perfect. Jesus tended to get angry when he saw injustices towards the weak, poor and vulnerable, and taught that this reflected God’s heart for this world.

Plus, Jesus couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of those leaders who continued the tradition of the people who had rejected, persecuted and killed the prophets, and yet now claimed to be keepers of their tombs and traditions. The prophets challenged the authority of those who used religion to their own advantage and ignored God’s real concerns. Now those prophets were buried in fine tombs which the Pharisees kept painted a sparking white—but they contained decaying remains of humanity. They represented the challenge of God, which had been thoroughly rejected by the forebears of the very Pharisees who minded the tombs.

So Jesus fronts up to the Pharisees: “You’re like those tombs,” he says. “You’re empty, false, hypocritical and doomed to decay.”

Was this for fun? Did Jesus like arguments? No, I don’t believe he did. He wanted to do two things:

  • to set people free from the oppression of empty religious authority and take them into deeper realities. Jesus’ confrontation is about breaking the power of people who want to oppress and oppose what God is saying to the world. Jesus is God’s Son, and his highest priority is to help us to hear God’s invitation to come freely to him.
  • to call even the hypocritical religious authorities back to freedom, and away from empty religion. He challenges us because he loves us; sadly, very few of the Pharisees were humble enough to see that.

Jesus still challenges us today. Hypocrisy is worse than useless. Christianity is about faith, not religion; about a relationship with a God who loves us and calls us to forgiveness and life, not a system of practice. It’s about Jesus, the one who rose from the dead and left an empty—not whitewashed—tomb.

Pray: Lord, anger can be the right thing… and it can be the wrong thing. Help me to know when to use it correctly myself, and to be sensitive to what others are saying in anger, and why.

Think about: Are you ever tempted to follow a belief system rather than a saviour? A religion rather than something real?

Challenge: The Bible teaches us that the wounds of a friend are more precious than the kisses of an enemy. How have you reacted to criticism recently? Is there any truth that has been spoken to you which you need to hear?

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