Sunday, July 12, 2009

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and 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.' Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore 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, so 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. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation."

"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! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

- Matthew 23:29-39

In this passage we get a taste of Jesus at his feisty best, his boldness in speaking to those leaders he says are hypocrites does not spare one word in his condemnation of their choices, their behavior. This is not the silent, accepting Jesus at his trial and crucifixion; this is Jesus preaching and speaking out, telling the truth to those who will want to get rid of him and send him to his death. And he's speaking about death here. He's speaking about the death of others who've spoken out, who've been sent to tell the truth, and the fates that befell those others who spoke out before Jesus himself came into the world. He's casting condemnation on those he says would do likewise in his present generation.

What I find illuminating about this passage is the hidden messages about judgment and what it means here. Or, perhaps they're not so hidden: Jesus speaks quite plainly. He speaks of sending prophets, sages and scribes to be persecuted. There is revealed here a kind of logic of the kingdom: those who are sent in Spirit will act as witnesses. We recall the words that the only unforgiven thing is the blasphemy of the Spirit. So Jesus sends prophets, sages and scribes to tell the truth, to act in Spirit. Here he speaks plainly: what is done to these who act in truth will bring judgment. He speaks of the righteous blood of those of the past who were killed while acting in the name of Spirit, in truth. He is giving us a kind of logic of judgment that has to be understood in terms of how judgment works. The consequences of our choices, our actions matter most deeply when they are done in response to truth, to one acting in Spirit.

Therefore it's important that we consider our relationship to Spirit. Do we do our best to understand what it is in prayer? Do we reach out to try to have an understanding of where we personally should open up to it?

In this passage Jesus clearly alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem, which would happen in 70 A.D. He speaks of his great love for Jerusalem: '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!' Our "willingness" to receive this love really depends upon our willingness for relationship to spiritual truth. We can't experience one without the other. You can't demand a person's love and reject all that they are at the same time. So it is in the relationship to this Person, to Jesus. Our response to spirit and spiritual work, Jesus is saying in this passage, is the tremendously important crux upon which judgment truly hangs. His great words of condemnation and anger come in response to those who should know better, who shed righteous blood. This passage illuminates at once his great love, and frustration at the refusal to accept that love and that truth that he has offered. One gets a sense of the timelessness in this statement, of a repeated effort of those who have come before him and who will continue to come after who speak in spirit and in truth, and the importance of this effort that will not diminish through time.

This passage comes in sequence just before Passion Week and his betrayal. It precedes the discussion of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and a discussion on the Tribulation, the end of the Age. So we are getting a summing up, just before his death, of what judgment is and means, and how we are to prepare for it. Most importantly, I think, is the notion that it is how we respond to Spirit, to the truth that comes of Spirit, that matters. How do we seek or relate to this truth? This vivid passage shows us a vibrant Jesus full of passion and all the emotion that is part of being human. Elsewhere we read that, looking over Jerusalem, Jesus wept. Let us remember his great love expressed here as a timeless desire to shelter us under his wings, and his frustration with those who will not accept his love because they reject his truth. This truth, he says, is linked in the teachings of those whom he has sent, and the righteous all over the world in every generation. It is something that lives for each of us, and will appear to challenge us over and over again to hear. It will also bear witness to how we respond. So He tells us here. We should remember that his greatest condemnation is reserved for religious hypocrisy - for those who claim they would not have been among the ones who condemned the prophets, but hate truth themselves and refuse its presence in their midst. Do we pray to have the ears to hear what we need to hear?

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