My Dear Parishioners:
In ancient times burial was rarely permitted within the walls of a city, while one of the commonest places for tombs was by the side of public roads. You can see a great number of these latter, still bearing their inscriptions, more than 2,000 years later, just outside Rome, along the Appian Way leading towards Naples. A particular variant on this was that, just before the Feast of Passover, in Palestine, the roads to Jerusalem were thronged with pilgrims coming to celebrate this great annual feast. But, according to the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched a dead body, or came into contact with a tomb, became automatically unclean, and was thereby debarred from attending the ceremonies of Passover in Jerusalem. To prevent such a disaster it became a Jewish custom to whitewash all wayside tombs in advance of the Feast, so that they became more conspicuous, thus easier to avoid. So in the Spring sunshine these tombs stood out, sparkling white, and almost lovely, although within they were full of decaying bodies or bones, whose touch would defile.
According to Jesus, that was precisely what the Pharisees were like, whited sepulchres, devout men who seemed intensely religious in every way, but looked down with contempt on those they regarded as sinners. The name Pharisees means “separated ones,” a group who distanced themselves not just from gentile sinners, but also from lax Jews whom they deemed less observant of the Law. With haughty arrogance they dismissed such people as “a rabble that do not know the Law.” In today’s Gospel we see how the Scribes and Pharisees had come to hear Jesus, but instead of listening to what he had to say they just began to criticize the behaviour of his disciples. It was the age-old tactic of lowering a man’s credibility by disparaging his friends.
The charge against the disciples was that they were eating without having first washed their hands, and so were breaking the ancient Jewish traditions. This typified the Pharisees’ air of self-righteousness, and was based not on any interior, personal relationship with God, but from purely human customs. This is not to say that all Pharisees were bad or immoral. Some, like Nicodemus, were sincere searchers for the truth. But there is nothing harder for a good man than to avoid being proud of being good, and once pride intervenes, his goodness is tarnished, no matter how sincere he feels. There was always the possibility that in attempting to be perfect in every little detail of the Law the Pharisee could end up as a bigoted legalist, or indeed as a violent zealot. This is not simply a Christian verdict on the Pharisees, but rather that of the Jews themselves. For the Talmud cites seven different types of Pharisee, only one of them truly good. So when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as whited sepulchres, many of those listening would have agreed with him.
His warning holds a message also for each of us, to look inwards into the depths of our own souls. Deep within us God has written his Law, and it is our honour and duty to obey it, as we see it in our conscience. We will be judged according to the way we behave, based on what in our hearts we believe to be right and true and proper. “It is from within,” Jesus tells us today, “that evil arises.” He wants us to look beyond current opinion, the confrontations and problems of our own time, and strive for greater purity of heart. Steer clear of stupid conflicts and from slavery to convention and taboos, he says, and open up to the Holy Spirit’s word of life.
Blessings, Fr. John