Woe to Whom?
Have you ever noticed that in the Gospels Jesus never condemns the contrite sinner? You never hear “Woe to you adulterers!” or “Woe to you tax collectors!” and the like. What really provokes the ire of Jesus is the hypocrisy of those who either imagine themselves or present themselves to be without sin, those who place themselves in a position of judgment over others.
In today’s Gospel the condemnation is directed at the scribes and pharisees, the scholars of the law and religious leaders, who go about their society pointing the finger at others, criticizing those for splinters in their eyes without acknowledgment of the massive plank in their own.
“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.
This passage should give all Christians and people of good will pause. It should remind us of how we are, as St. Paul says in today’s First Reading, called to “walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12).
I’m reminded of how Pope Francis responded to the first question in his now-famous interview published in America magazine. Here is the full text, told in first person by the interviewer, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ:
I have the first question ready, but then I decide not to follow the script that I had prepared for myself, and I ask him point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask…. He nods that it is, and he tells me: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
This is exactly what Jesus is calling us to realize in today’s Gospel (as in so many of the narratives of the Good News). We are not expected to be perfect, to never sin. Such an expectation is unrealistic and futile. We are all human, imperfect, finite, and prone to sinfulness.
However, hypocrisy can be avoided. It is an insult added to the injury of self-righteousness and compartmentalization. Hypocrisy arises in the cold hearts of those who project their own guilt, shame, and sinfulness onto others without a willingness to accept their own need for forgiveness, without owning their own desire for mercy.
Jesus nowhere signals that he is cool with human sinfulness, but he does understand it. He doesn’t suggest that things are perfectly ok as things are, but he’s not surprised by the reality of adulterers and tax collectors and even his own murderers, whom he nevertheless forgives from the cross.
Who he cannot stand are those who, unlike Pope Francis in our time, cannot admit their own guilt and sin yet still condemn others for their wrongdoing or imperfection.
I am a sinner, and so are you. Together may we work to live our baptismal vocation more sincerely and, as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).