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Are We Whitewashed Tombs?

First Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the Gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers. As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory. And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 139:7-8, 9-10, 11-12AB

You have searched me and you know me, Lord. Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, Even there your hand shall guide me, and your right hand hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light”–For you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day.

Gospel: Matthew 23:27-32

Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous,  and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out!”

ESV

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In today’s reading, we see what happens when the Pharisees incur the ire of Jesus. The harshest words that Christ speaks in Scripture are directed at these religious leaders who pride themselves on their moral superiority to everyone around them. These are people fundamentally in denial of the reality of their sinfulness. Because they say the right things in public, embrace and reject the right people, and keep themselves obsessively pure, they believe they are free from sin.

Yet, as we read in Psalm 139 today, God has searched us and knows us. There is no where we can go to flee His presence, and no part of ourselves that He does not intimately know.

The Pharisees aren’t fooling Jesus and neither are we.

This sounds harsh, but not in the way you think. We are like the Pharisees, in that we think there are parts of ourselves we can hide from God, and that if we just work hard enough or say the right prayers, that one day we will escape from the burden of sin, which really is the burden of being human.

Sisters, this is not so.

God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. Yet in today’s Gospel Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for being light and beautiful on the outside, but internally full of darkness. The darkness inside of us is there not because we are bad and evil, but because we have not given it to the Light.

Knowledge is the beginning of all wisdom, and self-knowledge is the beginning of holiness. How can we grow in virtue if we haven’t acknowledged our sin, keeping it locked in darkness inside, as the Pharisees do?

How can Christ transform and bless that which is not offered? God so longs to help us transform and be fully alive, full of true joy and peace. He did not create us to be whitewashed tombs, but to be cenacles of light and life. This is why He condemns the Pharisees; not only because they are strangers to Him, but because they are strangers to themselves.

Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to self-knowledge, and if you find yourself invited to confront some inner darkness, ask God to shed his light on it and set you free.

photo by Corynne Olivia

Sarah Babbs is a writer and mother of three, including twin toddlers. She writes about faith, social teaching, and navigating life as a motherless daughter and mother. You can find out more about her here.

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