“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men” (Mt 23: 13).
Context, in any reading of the Gospels, or any scriptural text, is important, but certainly with today’s reading. Our country is already experiencing enough division, polarization, and racial unrest as it is. These comments have too often been used to fuel anti-Semitic rhetoric. We need to remember that Jesus is Jewish. “The criticisms are leveled with those of power and/or influence as in the prophetic denunciations, not against the whole people of Israel. The aberrations denounced by Jesus were also denounced by other Jewish teachers in the rabbinic tradition. The goal of the denunciations is to highlight the error, to preserve others from it, and perhaps to bring those who err to the way of righteousness” (Harrington 2007, 327).
Those who would use these verses to denounce people of the Jewish faith tradition, just for being Jewish, would be acting in the same way as those for whom Jesus was convicting. Jesus spoke to the specific actions of specific leaders he had encountered who were using their power and influence for their own means and agendas. The hypocritical behavior that Jesus brought to light unfortunately still exists in our civil and religious leadership, though not all. It is why so many people are disillusioned with our religious and civic institutions.
We seek truth, authenticity, and transparency because these qualities are foundational for building trust and relationships. St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow, wrote in hid Introduction to his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and we are restless until we rest in you.” He experienced a life without God and with him, and regretted the days he had resisted his invitation. It is unfortunate how many today have not come to embrace the words of Augustine, because of their experiences with those, who in the name of Christ, have “locked the kingdom of heaven” before them.
It is very easy to point fingers at others and how hypocritical they are, but Jesus is also speaking directly to each one of us. How have we erred? In what areas of our life have we allowed past hurts and wounds, anxieties and fears, prejudicial and judgmental attitudes, to limit us from living a more authentic life aligned with the teachings of Jesus. We all fall short in living the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (cf Jn 14:6), but the good news is that when we have the humility to be contrite, to recognize and to be sorry for the hurt we have caused, to admit when we have been wrong, we have a loving Father with arms wide open to embrace us, comfort, lead us to reconciliation, and heal us.
May we follow the lead of St Augustine’s mother, St Monica, whose memorial we celebrate today. She guided her son, convicted him, did not judge him, but prayed for his conversion. May she intercede on our behalf, that we may be open to being conformed to Jesus, while at the same time be willing to speak up, out, and against any act that diminishes or denounces the dignity of another, as we resist the temptation to do so in a way that diminishes those who inflict division and hate. Jesus invites us to convict others and hold them accountable as he and the prophets who came before him did with those not fulfilling and unfortunately also abusing their roles of leadership. The intent is to win back our brother or our sister, by leading them to a place of contrition and reconciliation.

Photo: Sanctuary of St Peter Catholic Church, early morning before Mass. St Monica, just before she died, asked her sons to remember her at the altar of the Lord wherever they may be.
Link for the Mass readings for Monday, August 27, 2018:
Harrington, S.J., Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, in Sacra Pagina, Ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.

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