Homily for August 25th, 2013: Matt. 23:13-22.
Today’s gospel gives us the first three of the seven woes pronounced by Jesus against those who refuse to accept him and his message. They correspond to the blessings or Beatitudes spoken by Jesus in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.
The scribes and Pharisees against whom Jesus pronounces these woes are the interpreters and teachers of God’s law, the Ten Commandments. Nowhere does Jesus criticize, let alone reject, God’s law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. “I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17).
What Jesus attacks is the gaping contrast between what those against whom he pronounces his woes teach, and how they themselves behave. The first woe is directed against those who do not enter the kingdom of heaven because they have closed their minds and hearts against him. “You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men.” Even worse, Jesus says, are their attacks against those who are open to Jesus’ person and message. “You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.”
The woe against those who “traverse sea and land to make one convert” is a back-handed compliment to the missionary zeal of those who take their treasured Jewish faith to non-Jews. Paul would do this with his new Christian faith. What Jesus condemns is the narrow, legalistic version of Jewish faith which they propagate. This is also the basis of the woe against people who take oaths with formulas that allow them to wriggle out of what they have sworn to.
Does all that belong to a bygone age? Don’t you believe it! The yawning gap between what we claim to believe and how we actually behave remains a danger for us Catholics today. As the old saying has it: “What you are speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.”
We pray in this Mass that this yawning gap may be closed through our daily prayer: “Not what I want, Lord, but what you want.”