Scripture: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:27-28 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus, Jesus, following his formulaic woe statements, points out that these religious leaders meticulously observe the laws regarding the ceremonial washing of dinnerware. Reiterating his allegation that they are spiritually blind, Jesus tells them first to clean the inside of the cup and plate so that the outside may be clean (referring to their spiritual condition).
Today’s reading of the sixth woe builds on the extent of their hypocrisy. He describes the scribes and Pharisees as whitewashed tombs with a pristine outward appearance that belies the decay inside—referring to their unrighteous spiritual condition borne in hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Takeaway: The metaphor of a whitewashed tomb is apt timing with the Passover three days out. Leading up to the Passover, faithful Jews would whitewash inconspicuous graves with lime to make them stand out and thereby prevent pilgrims traveling into Jerusalem from inadvertently trespassing over these burial sites and becoming unclean (resulting in a seven-day quarantine prohibiting participation in the festival). Additionally, at the time of Jesus’ ministry, a common practice developed where Jews would place the bones of their diseased ancestors in ornate ossuaries (small bone-box receptacles typically made of white limestone).
So Jesus may have cleverly referred to the religious leaders as whitewashed tombs on two levels: corporately (causing those they lead to also transgress the law with a hypocritical mindset) and personally (revealing their inherited corruption). As theologian Michael Wilkins sums it, “These religious leaders give the appearance of having avoided unrighteousness by their attention to their many legal requirements, but inwardly they are unrighteous, for they have not attended to the transformation of the heart that can come by responding to Jesus” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.755).
Our takeaway? While investing in good health practices to ensure a quality of life visible on the outside, we must prioritize cooperating with the Holy Spirit to build a strong faith that transforms the heart and mind and guards against duplicity on the inside. Still, we must exercise patience, for the transformation process is what its name implies: a “process”—a life marked by grace with victories and setbacks. But if we follow the legalistic practices of our modern-day versions of the Pharisees, we will squeeze the joy out of our spiritual journeys and become imbittered hypocrites. But suppose we resist the temptation to self-monitor our whiteness (our progress toward holiness) and trust that he who began a good work in us will see it through to completion (Philippians 1:6). In that case, we will steer clear of legalism and enjoy the journey a whole lot more.
Prayer: Father God, thank you for your Son who redressed the balance of scales to weigh righteousness in balance with grace. And thank you for your Holy Spirit, who ensures the supreme work of the Gospel continues to permeate our minds and hearts and deepen our understanding of your grace. Still, our sinful nature entices us to take control. So would you please help us to cooperate with your Holy Spirit to trust and submit to the transformation process undergirded by your Son’s grace? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling