Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s homily for Tuesday, August 26th, 2020
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.MT 23:27-32
You build the tombs of the prophets
and adorn the memorials of the righteous,
and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors,
we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’
Thus you bear witness against yourselves
that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets;
now fill up what your ancestors measured out!”
This morning the Gospel continues on in Chapter 23, the final public teaching of Our Lord. After this, his teaching is only to The Apostles. And to understand it, it is worth considering St. Matthew’s way of thought. We look to him as the tax collector.
One of the things about tax collectors, like other people who take care of accounting, is that they have a very orderly mind but the order and the way they think is about maintaining balances–would that not be correct, Deacon? You put into the various columns the income, and the outgo and such.
St. Matthew, in my mind, thinks like an accountant. He’s organized his Gospel in columns. You have your Nativity section, you have the preparation for the public ministry, with The Baptism and The Temptation in the first column. The Sermon on the Mount, two chapters of miracles, a mission sermon, followed by being on the mission, and the various controversies, the chapter on parables, and so on. And all the way through he has it all well organized.
There is another kind of organization in terms of the whole and that has to do with these woes. In the scripture mentality, in the Old Testament, beatitude has as its opposite: a woe. Beatitude is spoken for someone who has this guarantee of salvation. Woe is spoken to those who are doomed. It’s very much equivalent to those times when one or other little boy in my school was sent out of the classroom to the principal, Sr. Sean, the other boys would just start singing, “dum dum de dum dum dum de dum,” and then would all get a sharp look from the teacher–but this kind of pronouncement of woe is equivalent to humming that funeral dirge from Chopin–and this is something that is going on in the Gospel.
The very first public pronouncements, the first public preaching in the Gospel of Matthew are The Beatitudes, and the very last public pronouncements are The Woes, and that they are meant to be bookends. It brings out something that is at the core of the Gospel. You do not just sort of say “this is bookends.” But why? Because, by framing the whole of the public ministry in woes at the end and beatitudes at the beginning, Our Lord is showing that there is a fundamental decision to listen to the Gospel, to repent of sin, to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and to make a decision one way or the other.
These woes are addressed to the Pharisees; they had been the leaders of opposition–very strong opposition. When they would sometimes see Our Lord do powerful things, like cast out demons, they would be upset and accuse him of doing so by the power of the Evil One–that is why he had to give that teaching, that “the devil is not against himself, a house divided cannot stand.” And when they saw him healing people instead of rejoicing, Our Lord had said, as a matter fact and that one time in the synagogue, when he says to them he knows their thoughts, he says to them, “is it right to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?” And they would not answer. And He healed the man and they go outside the synagogue immediately and plot with the Herodian party to kill him.
They want to kill and he wants to give life.
This is where they cannot see what he is doing, and so by this point, as a matter fact he had just spent the previous few days, I do not know if you realize this, this passage takes place during Holy Week; He had already entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, then we see him teaching over the next couple of days, two or three days–probably Wednesday. And this is his final teaching of Holy Week. They had already bribed Judas. They had already been trying to trick him, again and again, throughout that Holy Week, by asking him questions they thought were impossible. The Sadducees got in on it. The Herodians got in on it. Everybody is trying to trick him. And He undoes them at every turn.
In the face of these different oppositions he gives the final decree of the Woes, as the other bookend of his message. Notice he calls them hypocrites–repeatedly. This is particularly something that applies to religious people. This is not written down only to criticize the Pharisees of long ago. Christians have understood through the centuries that this applies to any person who is religious in a certain external way but interiorly does not believe, interiorly does not accept the teaching, interiorly divorces his or her own self-centered desires for power, for money, pleasure; and negates the teaching of the Gospel. And so He speaks to them and calls them hypocrites.
The word hypocrite was also used in Greek as a term referring to an actor. Actors are people who play a part. They do not write their own scripts, they follow a script from somebody else.
Sometimes I wonder, in our own society, where they have been portrayed since the 1920’s as the American equivalent of nobility. At the same time, they are also the object of a lot more scandal–and people go all agog over the scandals–but they are treated as if they are nobility, in an odd way, when, in fact, they’re people who have a wonderful skill–acting is a great skill–but they just play any role they are given; they are villains, heroes, all kinds of different folks. And why people would put them up in the front in order to say, “yes, their opinion on the environment, or morality, or whatever is so important that we will use their endorsement.” What an odd thing! These people do not speak their own minds, they need someone to write it for them. I like them when they are reading Shakespeare–that’s because I like Shakespeare–they just do it better than I ever could.
But you see the same dynamic of acting: people who let sometimes the Church write their lines for them but they treat their life in the Church as if it were an act, as if this was something that they play a role and they dramatize how they do certain things but they don’t have faith. And the other thing, also, and this is something that goes on with religious hypocrites on a regular basis, and it is a constant temptation for anybody who wants to be religious: it is to be religious on the outside as Our Lord speaks here where you wash the outside but not the inside; you whitewash the tombs but inside there is corruption.
These are ways to speak about another reality, namely, the lack of integration of our sinful impulses with our faith. Our faith in Christ is sometimes reduced by people who may be tempted toward hypocrisy but it is reduced to our mythology; it is treated as the Christian myth–books are written about that.
There was a very famous German scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, who was more taken up with a philosophy than he was with the Gospel. He wanted to integrate the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who saw humanity as a being toward death. That authentic faith for Heidegger is that you had to face death; your own death–annihilation. And the two of them had known each other at the university–they were both professors–until Hitler made Heidegger the chancellor of that university–but they were very much there and Bultmann was taken up by that philosophy, and to live that out, he taught, first of all, about how the miracles of Jesus have to be eliminated. The Resurrection has to be eliminated–you cannot accept that because it takes away the tension of death–you don’t take death as seriously as Heidegger does and therefore you don’t believe in it. And he talked about his project; in German he used the word entmythologisieren; ‘demythologizing’ is usually the way it’s translated: Destroy the Christian myth. And this became very popular. First, in many Protestant seminaries and then in many Catholic seminaries in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s.
Bultmann is being reevaluated today to be sure, but so many folks trained in seminary, accepted his enterprise of demythologizing Christianity. Making the miracles of Christ just something you either explained by nature, or you just simply say it did not happen at all. That was the tension that was between a lot of the interpreters; explain it by natural means or explain it by saying it was just not true–that The Resurrection is not true because people just felt Jesus’s presence and they felt they missed him and it was such an intense feeling they came to believe that he rose from the dead.
One former priest even has taught frequently in his books and lectures that they just took Jesus’s body and put it in the garbage dump and the dogs ate it–something that was flat against the teaching of the Jews–the Jews did not do that with the body, they respected the body–even a criminal. There were laws that you had to bury them. It was something that, over and over again, made no sense.
Others would take and reinterpret. I will never forget being at a lecture where a priest said–he was a Liberation Theologian–a very famous one–and he said when Jesus told the Apostles that they could take the heads of grain along the way, that he was helping to liberate private property and give it to the masses and destroy private property. After the lecture I went up and said, actually, no, in Deuteronomy, in Chapter 23, there’s a law saying that nobody can cut down the grain along a path or pick the fruit along the path so that the passersby could take it–it was there for them–it was left for them; it was the law. He said to me, “I know, but I’m trying to make a point.” That was hypocrisy.
For a variety of reasons, sometimes for ideology, people will try to say–we hear from our politicians–our so called Catholic ones, who say, “well, St. Augustine did not know for sure when life began in the womb when there was; actually what was meant by this woman was that he did not know when the rational soul came to be, and therefore, she concluded that it is okay to have an abortion, and it’s okay for her to promote it,” when in fact Augustine went on to say, “I do not know when the rational soul begins”–which he did not–“but it is wrong to do an abortion,”–that he absolutely forbade it, as had Christians from the 1st century in the Didache, and the letter of Barnabas, and all the way on through, whenever the issue came up–it was even an issue for Our Lord because the Jews did not do that–it was not a temptation for them, that had long been extirpated out of the culture, if it ever was there, it was not their mentality. But, among the pagans, it was common, their doctors knew how to do such things. And so the Christians, who were among the pagans, taught this and those who tried to teach otherwise are these hypocrites; they play act and they don’t take that integration of the Gospel and make it their own; the teachings on life, the teachings on what is good, the call to repent; all of that must be integrated, and only in that case can we avoid hypocrisy, whether it be the hypocrisy of being judgmental, the hypocrisy of being licentious and immoral, being rapacious and stealing; all sorts of ways to do that.
We have to constantly come back to Christ, and let him transform us interiorly so that we are not play actors, but we’re truly the doers of the word as St. James teaches us.
Transcript of Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s Homily for Tuesday, August 26th, 2020, provided by WQPH Radio