How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You make fine tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of those who lived good lives; and you claim that if you had lived during the time of your ancestors, you would not have done what they did and killed the prophets.
So you actually admit that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets! Go on, then, and finish up what your ancestors started!
[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day. In this section I look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.]
Yesterday Jesus declared that the Jewish religious establishment was full of “violence and selfishness” along with “bones and decaying corpses.” Today Jesus expands on this concept by referring to the murder and persecution of the prophets throughout the centuries. He talks about how they build memorials to dead prophets that they persecuted during their lifetimes. Then Jesus, knowing that they will murder him just like they killed the prophets, challenges them. He says, “Go on, then, and finish up what your ancestors started!” And they did exactly what he predicted they would do….
First, humanity killed him:
Then, they built really big monuments to him. Just like Jesus said they were in the habit of doing.
The Pharisees apparently bragged that they would have listened to the prophets if they had lived back in the times of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the rest. They bragged that unlike their ancestors they would have known that these prophets were speaking God’s truth. Jesus says, “and you claim that if you had lived during the time of your ancestors, you would not have done what they did and killed the prophets.”
But from Jesus’ point of view this was ludicrous because he was speaking God’s truth and they weren’t listening to anything he had to say and they were, in fact, plotting to kill him. He points out that they are just the same as those who went before them. He mocks them with their own ancestral pride: “So you actually admit that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets!” He says, in effect, that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
So Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that throughout the history of the Jews, there was a pattern. Prophets were persecuted in their own time, and then revered when they were vindicated by history. And subsequent generations arrogantly denied that they would have done the same thing. A cycle of persecution, vindication, monuments, and denial. If you were a Jewish prophet you had a tough row to hoe. The leadership didn’t take kindly to either criticism or change.
Just in case you are thinking that people in modern times have a lot more sense than those stupid, blind Pharisees, you need look no further than the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If there was ever anyone in this world who tried to follow the teachings of Jesus, it had to be Dr. King. And yet how was he treated by Americans when he was alive? Collectively as a society we arrested him, threw rocks at him, hurled accusations at him, and accused him of destroying our country. Lots of people said he made them sick. I remember those times. I was there. My husband can also testify to this because he marched with Dr. King. People hated him, and ultimately the hate that many harbored for him expressed itself in his assasination.
Then, we made up for it by creating lots of really great monuments:
Jesus calls on the Pharisees to address their culture of violence and stop killing God’s prophets. When you kill God’s prophets you kill the voice of God in your time. Jesus wants his people to give up on the idea that you can somehow silence God and those who speak the truth by killing them. In the end, it’s always a mistake. It is shameful and monuments won’t help. It is wrong and denial won’t make it right. Especially when it keeps happening over and over again.
And of course none of us would have allowed Jesus to be persecuted if we had been in charge. We don’t vilify and try to censor those who say things we don’t want to hear. We don’t ever use violent rhetoric to intimidate those who threaten the status quo. Right. No, not us us. We are better than that. We are smarter than that.
So today in America we have freedom of speech so people can’t be legally killed for expressing their opinions. The government and the churches can no longer kill people for what they say. The down side is that this freedom of speech can’t change people’s hearts. It allows people to freely stir up other people’s passions to the extent that they feel like they are doing society a favor when they murder someone like Dr. King. It’s a fine line between violent rhetoric and violent acts. There is always someone who gets carried away and crosses the line. So they blow up a Federal Building full of kids in Oklahoma City in the name of freedom. Or kill a doctor who performs abortions to make a statement about the sanctity of life. Or kill gay people in the name of righteousness. Or amassing weapons of mass destruction to make the world safe. I’m
very surprised Obama is still alive, and I’ve heard many people express concern for the safety of the new Pope who is currently trying to shake things up in the Roman Catholic Church. I’m sure that 100 years down the road many statues will be erected to both of them. There will be many fine monuments to make up for the persecution they suffered in their attempts to stand up for the poor. That pissed people off in Jesus’ time just like it does now.
Only love can make things right. Only a culture of love can bring God’s kingdom to earth. We have a long ways to go. Words of Jesus, just as true today as back then. Persecution, vindication, monuments, denial. Hear or see something you don’t like? Kill first, ask questions later, and try to pretend that it will never happen again. I wonder how much longer it’s going to take to get it straight? In the words of Bob Dylan, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.”
What does this scripture say to you?