“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 and leaders.
We seek truth, authenticity, and transparency because these qualities are foundational for building trust and relationships. St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrate this coming Saturday, wrote in his 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 in today’s Gospel. How have we erred, been hypocritical ourselves? In what areas of our lives 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 his life and teachings? 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, comfort, lead us to reconciliation, and offer us forgiveness and healing.
As we are more conformed to living our lives like Jesus, we have more credibility when we speak up, out, and against any act that diminishes or denounces the dignity of another, while at the same time resisting 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 who did not fulfill and unfortunately also abused their roles of leadership.
We just need to be careful to convict and hold ourselves accountable for our errors as we lead others from theirs with the intent of winning back our brother or our sister. Our intent will not be to humiliate, degrade, and/or shame them, but to lead them to a place of contrition and reconciliation, such that each of us can be people of integrity, transparency, and holiness. By doing so, we will not lock the doors of heaven with our hypocrisy but will open them with the keys of authenticity and integrity that Jesus gives us.