Whited sepulchre

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Matthew 23:25-39

Last time we considered the absurd lack of proportion demonstrated by the Pharisees.  They strained at gnats and swallowed camels.  In other words, they obsessed over minutiae and ignored the whole point of the Scriptures.

How did it come to this?  How did they end up having such a diabolical problem with perspective?

The answer is that they made the kinds of errors that we are tempted to make every day.  They focused on externals, whilst ignoring the festering darkness within.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.  Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.  Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”  (Matthew 23:25-28)

On the outside there is cleanliness, brilliant white, beauty and apparent righteousness.

On the inside there is extortion, excess, death, uncleanness, hypocrisy and iniquity.

And the stand-out image to encapsulate this split-personality is a “whited sepulchre.”  Tyndale translated it “paynted tombes.”  Coverdale has “paynted sepulcres”   The Geneva Bible says “whited tombes.”  More modern translations say “white-washed tombs.”  It’s a compelling picture. Imagine it, freshly painted, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun.  Dazzling on the outside.  Death on the inside.  And that’s not simply a picture of an institution.  Jesus is speaking of people. These people were white-washed tombs.

Here is the reason for their imbalance between ‘the weightier matters of the law’, and the trivia with which they concerned themselves:  there was a deeper imbalance between their internal and their external world.  They were so concerned to appear brilliant that all their efforts were thrown into “operation white-wash.”  Hidden acts of kindness were useless. Ostentation and boasting were the order of the day.  It was a “Get pious quick” scheme and it left them spiritually bankrupt.  They only did what would exalt themselves in the eyes of others – and bringing a tithe of their garden herbs to the temple was perfect for this low-cost, high-impact publicity drive.  The weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith – they were too long-term, too labour-intensive, too hidden!  And so their righteousness was as thin as a coat of paint.  Underneath it was uncleanness and iniquity.

Does any of this hit home with us?  Are we drawn towards the “Get pious quick” schemes?  What do we make into our own barometers of spiritual health?  Do we settle for a trivial externalism?  Do we measure ourselves against mere box-ticking Christianity?  Are our eyes on the rituals that keep up appearances while the “inside of the cup” is anything but clean?

Well if we’ve been following Jesus’ teaching we ought to know that everyone has a problem with the “inside of the cup.”

“Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:  These are the things which defile a man.”  (Matthew 15:19-20)

So if we’ve all got this problem, how do we “clean the inside of the cup”? Is it about turning our gaze firmly towards our navel?  Is the answer a re-doubling of our private spiritual disciplines?

Well there are a number of problems with that as a solution.  Firstly, the internally focused Christian will end up being just as neglectful of ‘the weightier matters’ of justice and mercy as the religious exhibitionist.  The focus may have switched from external to internal, but what is really required is a decisive shift from self to neighbour.  And that shift has to come from elsewhere.

The second problem with trying to “clean the inside of the cup” ourselves is the sheer magnitude of the task.  Stemming the flow of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, etc” with personal piety is like trying to dam Niagara Falls with a cork.  There’s only one clean-up operation sufficient for the task.  The prophet Ezekiel speaks of it in chapter 36:

“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you:  and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.  And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.  I will also save you from all your uncleannesses.”      (Ezekiel 36:25-29)

Here is a heavenly heart transplant which only the LORD Jesus can offer.  But if we have it, our world is turned inside-out!  Now that we’ve been cleansed, we can forget about “operation white-wash”.  The eyes of heaven see us as clean, the eyes of the world are just not that important.  We dazzle in our Father’s eyes, we don’t need to outshine our neighbours.  No, now we can love our neighbours.  And it has nothing to do with our own little holiness project.  It has nothing to do with climbing the rankings of our spiritual communities.  We are released from the need to justify ourselves and suddenly we can serve.

Not a white-washed tomb.  Christians have put down the paint brush.  We are those who admit to our filth and spiritual deadness.  But we are those who have been saved from our uncleannesses.  Now we have nothing to prove.  Nothing to lose.  Nothing to hide.  Now we can love.  And such love is the fulfilling of the law.

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