When the converted became perverted – Memorial of St Augustine of Hippo- Monday- 21st Week in ordinary time – Matthew 23: 13-22
Chapter 23 can well be compared to round twelve in a boxing match. The Pharisees and scribes have been sparring with Jesus in chapter nine and now the gloves are off. It seems like a fight to the finish. Jesus, in verse 1-12 has already delivered a jab; and with it He has picked a few good scoring points, but then He launched into a combination of punches; seven of them to be precise.
The Bible records these series of straight punches as the seven ‘woes’ against the Pharisees and scribes. The Greek word for woe is ‘ouai’. It is hard to translate this word for it communicates not only wrath, but also sorrow. Jesus is not just throwing a star tantrum here; this is ‘righteous anger’ tinged with sorrow. This anger, followed by sorrow, is clearly seen when Jesus brings to a close chapter 23 with his lament over Jerusalem.
It is not Israel, His ‘lost sheep’, that is denounced by Jesus but the focus is on the Scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus calls ‘hypocrites’; hupokrites in Greek. A ‘Hupokrite’ in its original context meant one ‘who answers’ to a statement in a dialogue. In its more popular context it came to mean one who ‘acts a part’’. In the truest sense of the word, a hypocrite is an actor but not a genuine one who immerses himself into a role; rather he is one who ‘pretends’ and merely puts on an act. In calling the Pharisees and Scribe hypocrites, Jesus uncovered their masks, thus baring their true thoughts and feelings.
The Gospel text of today covers the first three woes. Consider them to be three good powerful straight punches thrown in a classic “one-two” combination. Before the Pharisees or scribes knew what hit them, He will deliver the ‘knock out’ in verse 29; the last of the woes. But for now the first three punches hit the Pharisees and Scribes where it hurt them the most. They did not see them coming so they could not even ‘slip’ or ‘sway’ and so guard themselves.
The opening woe is directed against the Pharisees and Scribes because they ‘hid the key to the kingdom’. This was not a physical key but a metaphorical one. Jesus was the key to the kingdom and by preventing Him from bringing the Good News they shut out those who were keen to enter. This the Pharisee and Scribes did very effectively by masking the message of love that Jesus preached with their thousand petty rules and regulations. Their complex and often false interpretations had made them blind guides who continued to pretend that they knew God’s will.
The second woe of Jesus was in reality, a backhand compliment to the Pharisees for their diaspora mission on whose foundations Paul had built his mission. It was the aim of the Pharisees to reach out to ‘God fearing’ non-Jews and proselytize them to the faith of Judaism. In doing so they often imposed on them their narrow understanding of God’s law as lived in ceremonial actions such as circumcision. As one text well puts it, the converted became the most perverted for those that were proselytised became fanatics. In reality the Jews had become missionaries of evil.
The third woe was directed to the greed of the Jewish leaders. The Decalogue says nothing about oaths or vows other than “you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain” and “you shall not bear false witness.” In denouncing the interpretation of oaths as proposed by the Jewish leaders, Jesus was simply asking one to speak the truth.
However what made this woe against the Pharisee and scribes so pointed was their greed behind their interpretation. In reality they did not care about the sanctity of the oath nor the sanctity of the altar or sanctuary but rather their eye was set on the gift and the gold on which it was kept. For the Jew, who lived at the time of Jesus, any oath taken with God as witness, was binding. With their eye on the gold and the gift, the Pharisees fallaciously ruled that the oaths taken by the sanctuary of God and the altar of God did not hold as binding because the oath was not sworn ‘only to God’ . These hair splitting judgments were clearly an affront on the sensibilities of any honest man who could see through the evil intentions of the Pharisees and scribes for the altar and sanctuary belonged to God.
Our Gospel of today stops at the first three woes. Jesus has gauged by now the chink in the armour of the Pharisees. Their defensive techniques are no match for Jesus. Their ‘high guard’ is about to go down to Jesus knock out.
Fr Warner D’Souza
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