Day 204: Matthew 23:33-36

You snakes and children of snakes! How do you expect to escape from being condemned to hell? And so I tell you that I will send you prophets and wise men and teachers; you will kill some of them, crucify others, and whip others in the synagogues and chase them from town to town.

As a result, the punishment for the murder of all innocent people will fall on you, from the murder of innocent Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar. I tell you indeed: the punishment for all these murders will fall on the people of this day!

[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.] 

Jesus is in full prophetic mode here, in the tradition of the great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.  He’s delivering the word of God.  Through Jesus, God is demanding that humanity must stop killing his prophets.   God says that a person shouldn’t have to die for telling people to do the right thing. When someone stands up for what everyone knows is right, it shouldn’t be a crime.  Naturally there may be resistance to change.  There should be lively debate and reasoned analysis.  But the pattern of responding to every call for change with anger and imprisonment and murder must stop.  The prophets in our midst should be respected, not killed.   Even the fools in our midst should be respected, not killed.  Everyone should be respected, not killed.  Jesus should have been respected, not killed.

Jesus then refers to innocent people who have been killed throughout the history of the Jews.  Abel was the son of Adam and Eve.  He was killed by his brother Cain in a fit of jealous rage.  Zechariah son of Berechiah was a prophet who lived about 500 years before Jesus and was, according to this scripture, murdered by religious authorities.  It should be noted that before John the Baptist came there had not been an authentic prophet in several hundred years.  It was a dry time.  I guess God got tired of sending his chosen prophets to a certain death.  Why should he?  No one was listening. And so he remained silent.

Now it’s time to look at another one of those disturbing passages that I’ve never heard anyone preach on.  We all know that Jesus was the willing sacrifice who took away the sins of the world, right?  The obedient little lamb.  Be that as it may, that certainly isn’t what he was thinking of when he made today’s statement:

As a result, the punishment for the murder of all innocent people will fall on you, from the murder of innocent Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar. I tell you indeed: the punishment for all these murders will fall on the people of this day!

Will all of the guilt for all of the murders for all time be erased by the killing of Jesus on the cross?  Not according to this.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that when they murder him, the punishment for the murder of all of the innocent people from the beginning of humanity will be heaped on them.  Not only the punishment for his own murder, but the punishment for the murders of all of the innocent people from the beginning of mankind.  Wow.  Wow.  Ummm…do you think maybe God is angry?  I think Jesus is angry, too.  I think he is outraged that it has to end with his crucifixion.  He is outraged not only with his own death but with the deaths of all of the innocent people who have suffered a similar fate before him.  And of course it’s important to note that he is talking about pre-meditated murder of blameless people.  Murder in the first degree, whether or not it is sanctioned by government.

I don’t think it’s personal.  I think that both he and God are frustrated that the world hasn’t made any progress.  As I have said before, I believe God’s laws are like the laws of physics.  They are statements about the reality of the world and human nature.  Jesus is saying that the Law against murder is one of those eternal laws.  When you kill an innocent person it always ends bad.  And still, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day ultimately decide that murdering him for speaking out against the establishment is a good idea.  They think they will be able to kill him, and everything will just get back to normal.  Everyone will forget in a few weeks and nothing will change.  And all will be right with the world.

But killing Jesus was not going to help.  Their whole religious establishment was already on the way down.  “Normal” wasn’t working anymore.  That’s why there were so many “outcasts” for Jesus to work with.  And according to Jesus you can never, ever achieve peace by killing people.  Nevertheless the illusion continues today, fueled by an entertainment industry that perpetuates the myth that killing is heroic and violence can make things right.   If only Dr. King were dead, we could all be happy.  If only my girlfriend’s new boyfriend were dead, then I would be happy.  If only that teacher who was mean to me was dead, then I would be happy.  If only I could kill that storeowner and steal all of his property, then I would be happy.  If only those people I hate at school were dead, then I would be happy.  If only my wife were dead…..I would feel powerful.  I would feel like I’m in control.  I would feel like God.  And then I would be happy.  But murder doesn’t make people happy.  When you kill another person, you kill a part of yourself because we are all connected.

On and on. Yes, Jesus says we are all connected, even through the centuries. Together we sink or swim.  We share the pain of all victims of violence throughout all time. And we all are hurt by the curse that murder imposes on our society.  It perpetuates a cycle of violence that dates back to the time of Cain and Abel.  It’s what they refer to in some religious circles as a “generational curse” as in Exodus 34:7 1: “I keep my promise for thousands of generations and forgive evil and sin; but I will not fail to punish children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their parents.”  As we now know, people who are abused tend to abuse their children.  Children of drug addicts tend to become addicts.  Those who are abandoned at an early age are unable to form lasting relationships.  The sin of the father is heaped upon the child, who then passes it on to his own children.  That’s why Jesus refers to them as “Snakes and children of snakes.”  He calls on humanity to break the cycle of violence and abuse.  Like Dr. Phil says, nothing changes until someone is willing to step up and be the hero.  Someone has to decide to make sure the cycle stops with them so that it isn’t passed on to the next generation.

Jesus is saying that there is such a thing as collective guilt.  When we murder someone we suffer the same consequences as every murderer has suffered from the beginning of time – emotional devastation, mourning, guilt, rage, remorse, depression, isolation, retribution, and all the rest.  And every time another person murders the burden of that collective guilt increases as it is passed down to each successive generation.  It is an unspeakable horror that Jesus describes.  It is a terrible brokenness that those who murder heap on the legacy of the human race.  It affects us all.  But in the end, when he is on the cross, when he returns to life, it seems that all is forgiven.  He demonstrates God’s grace to humanity.  But while he forgives his murderers, he still doesn’t like it.  Because it’s evil and it needs to stop.

Well, this wraps up Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and their religious practices, usually referred to as the “Woe to the Pharisees” section.  I kind of look at these warnings like those delivered by ghostly spirits in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The ghosts who visited Scrooge and took him on a spiritual journey weren’t trying to condemn him.  They were trying to scare him into changing his ways.  I think Jesus took the time to yell at the Pharisees because he wanted so much for them to change their ways.  It was his parting gift to them.

And, it seems that they ultimately did take his advice to heart.  The Pharisees are judged by history to be forerunners of today’s Jewish rabbis, who have embraced the words of Jesus as insightful interpretations of the Torah.  Almost all of what Jesus taught has been incorporated into the modern Jewish Rabbinical movement.  The original “church split” between the Jews and Christians was not about what Jesus said or taught.  The big blowup was about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah (Day 145).  Christians said yes, Jews said no.  So they split and went their separate ways.  And, over the millennia, it seems that the reformed Jews are really more receptive to Jesus’ actual teachings than most Christian denominations.  Maybe it is because the Jews have a better understanding of what he was talking about. Because he was one of them.

So, in summary, here is a list of the things that Jesus warned the Pharisees about:

  • Legalism and callousness
  • Pretention
  • Privileges and titles
  • Negativity and judgmentalism
  • Conversion perversion
  • Materialism
  • Pettiness
  • Violence and capital punishment
  • Murder and persecution of the prophets

Just as the Pharisees eventually heeded Jesus’ warnings, we too should sit up and pay attention.  “How terrible for all of us” (or “Woe to us”) if we dishonor God with these kinds of religious practices and attitudes.  When churches engage in or tolerate these things that Jesus warns about, then they risk dying just like the fig tree that Jesus cursed on Day 181.  Our way of doing things in our churches will wither away and die, just like worship practices in that bloody Jewish Temple.  And the world won’t care, just like the world didn’t care if Ebenezer Scrooge died alone, because it was what he deserved.  But I believe that God is always willing to give us another chance.  Just as Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas future, “Are these the shadows of things that must be, or are they the shadows of things that MIGHT be?”  The answer for Scrooge, of course, was that a lonely, miserable demise was not inevitable.  The moral is that it is never too late to change, and the best time to change is today, right now.  We need to get these things out of our churches once and for all so that we more accurately represent the one whom we claim to follow!

What does this scripture say to you?

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