27 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. 30 Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’
31 But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. 33 Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?
34 Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city. 35 As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, this judgment will fall on this very generation.
37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. 38 And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate. 39 For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
The drawings from yesterday and today are both scenes of churchyards. Both show van Gogh’s critique of the church which is quite in line with the critique Jesus is leveling against the Pharisees and us in Matthew 23. The church loses its place as a hub of shared life as it becomes a monument of curated death. Embalmed self-righteousness takes the place of the Spirit breathing holy life into us. One of my favorite commentaries has this to say about Matthew 23:
“This is a sobering list of failure and judgment, with descriptions of hypocrisy and failure in which we cannot help but see ourselves. It is surely the case, for example, that many of us are kept from entering the kingdom by the lives we lead as Christians. Our problem is very simple – we simply do not know how to live as a people who believe that Jesus is the resurrected Lord. The joy and freedom that should name the lives of those freed from the demons become lost amid attempts to make our difference depend on matters that do not matter. We become adept at praising the prophets of the past, having lost the ability to discern the prophets among us.” (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, 199)
We study prophets and radical leaders of prior generations (like Luther, Edwards, and Wesley), but we do so in a way that domesticates them and leaves us unprepared to receive radical prophetic words in our own day. We turn leading a Christian life into something that prevents us from entering the kingdom, keeps us from experiencing the freedom and joy Jesus brings for us. Woe to us indeed.
The New Living Translation (NLT)Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.