No one receives a harsher assessment in the New Testament than the religious leaders of Jesus’ generation. Jesus excoriates the pious shepherds of his day labeling them “… brood of vipers … blind guides …whitened sepulchers. …”
In their case, Jesus did not shrink from breaking the bruised reed nor did he hesitate to squelch the smoldering wick. In a rare display of righteous anger, Jesus roundly denounced the scribes, the Pharisees, the priests and the rabbis of his day.
Jesus is simply taking his own words to heart: “From those to whom much is given, much will be demanded.” The religious leaders of Jesus’ community were the educated, respected, knowledgeable people of the day. These men knew the Scriptures by heart. They were familiar with all the arguments, pro and con, that arose in biblical discussion. They were zealously observant of the laws and traditions of their ancestors. And, although some might have catered to well-to-do widows, they were in most respects, morally good-living people. A number, like Gamaliel, were beyond reproach while others, like Simon, were attracted to Jesus’ ministry. Yet Jesus keenly and sadly perceived that something was missing in much of their otherwise honorable lifestyle. While these religious leaders were men of religious observance, they were lamentably short on spiritual insight.
The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day were great lovers of tradition. This is simply a kind way of noting that they were not given to profound thinking. They appreciated their traditions but they did not understand the deep meaning of their traditions. While they knew and practiced every jot and every tittle of the Old Law, they failed to grasp the spiritual meaning of these observances. They truly believed that God had spoken to them through the words and practices of their ancestors. Unfortunately, they viewed Jesus as an affront to these time-honored and treasured words and customs rather than appreciating him as the very fulfillment of everything the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic practices proposed. In their observance what should have been liturgy became mere ritual. What should have been prayer became plain platitudes. What should have been enlightening became simply informative. They lived on the surface of their religion rather than penetrating to its depths. Like the unreliable son in today’s Gospel passage, their lips said, “Yes,” but their actions failed to support their words.
Most readers, perhaps all the readers, of the Rhode Island Catholic should take the sad example of the Scribes and Pharisees to heart. Like these religious observers of Jesus’ day, most subscribers to this weekly newspaper are educated in their religion. Many were taught by the “good sisters” in their parish schools. Many went to LaSalle or Mount St. Charles or St. Xavier’s. Some possibly attended Providence College or Salve Regina. Let’s hope that all of us are faithful to Sunday Mass, the occasional confession and a few other pious observances. In other words, most readers of “The Quiet Corner” are good, practicing Catholics. It is precisely because our Catholic traditions have become second nature to us that each of us has the duty, the obligation, the responsibility, to examine the deep recesses of our faith.
Good Catholics who are very much involved in church activities have to make especially sure that their religion is a true expression of supernatural faith and not just a comfortable hobby that keeps them busy and engaged and sometimes even entertained. This was the error of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Their religion became merely a comfort for them rather than a challenge to them.
And when Jesus did challenge them to take a second look at their treasured teachings, they dismissed him as a rabble rouser and an upstart. They failed to see that faith is both ever-ancient and ever-new. They should have constantly re-examined their religious convictions making sure that they reflected the truth and did not merely re-affirm routine.
Because the tax collectors and prostitutes of Jesus’ day had no deeply held religious principles, they were not threatened by the preaching of Jesus. They welcomed his words as redeeming and liberating. Sadly, those who already treasured their beliefs could not accept the new slant Jesus was proposing for their enlightenment. They wanted their creed to be confirmed, not challenged.