Today’s Gospel reading is from Luke 11:47-54 NAB:[*]
[Jesus said:] “Woe to you! You build the memorials of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building. Therefore, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles; some of them they will kill and persecute’ in order that this generation might be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who died between the altar and the temple building. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood! Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.”When he left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him and to interrogate him about many things, for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.
What does this mean?
We can unpack this passage a little further by looking at the parallel rant in Matthew 23:13, 29-39. The main thrust of Jesus’ indictment was that the scribes and tannaim had transformed the Law of Moses from a tool for teaching mercy and justice into the external requirements of a cult of purity: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6; cf. Mt 9:13, 12:7). So in Matthew’s version, Jesus builds on the scribes’ and Pharisees’ hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’” (Mt 23:29-30).
How does this prove their hypocrisy? They stand in judgment on their forebears just as their forebears stood in judgment on the prophets; the stones they use to build the monuments to the murdered righteous are stones they cast on their ancestors. Their boast thus becomes their condemnation.
It’s commonly said that hindsight is always 20/20. In my experience, hindsight usually suffers just as much as foresight from myopia, astigmatism, tunnel vision and strabismus. It’s very easy to say, “If I were/had been placed in situation x (say, unwed and pregnant), I would never do/have done y (have an abortion).” It’s even easier to say this about historical crimes such as slavery and the Holocaust. But until you are placed in that situation, you don’t really know how firm your resolve will be. Since neither slavery nor a second Nazi Germany loom in our future, your boast is particularly empty, since you most likely will never be put to the test.
It doesn’t follow from such an argument that any particular act should be legal or morally acceptable. The point is that you can judge a person’s actions but you can’t judge the state of his soul. For you may yourself fail just such a test; indeed, it’s most probable you’ve failed several throughout your life and have been lucky enough to escape the consequences … so far. Remember King Oedipus, who condemned the murderer of his father only to find that he himself was the guilty party: “Let no one count himself fortunate until he has passed unscathed through all his days.”[†]
And this is where St. Paul picks up, in Romans 3:21-30 NAB:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God — to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.What occasion is there then for boasting? It is ruled out. On what principle, that of works? No, rather on the principle of faith. For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Does God belong to Jews alone? Does he not belong to Gentiles, too? Yes, also to Gentiles, for God is one and will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
Our faith in Christ sets us free from sin. But this faith doesn’t set us up as judges of souls. Indeed, we would have no need for such liberation had we never been chained to sin in the first place. And our freedom lasts only so long as we persevere in our faith (Rom 11:22); we must not get over-confident in our freedom, for that way lies ruin (1 Cor 10:12). “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27).
Christianity is not a cult of purity. Indeed, we are like the Samaritan in the parable (Lk 10:25-37), separated from the righteous by our impurity, yet called to compassion for those who, like ourselves, are stained, wounded and suffering. We cannot sit as judges who must stand in the dock ourselves.
[*] For you non-Catholics in the audience, the New American Bible is the translation used for the liturgy by the Catholic Church in the U.S. The rest of the English-speaking Catholic world uses the Jerusalem Bible, which is a more literal translation; like the New International Version, NAB incorporates more “dynamic equivalence”. Where not noted, my preferred version is the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (RSV).
[†] Sophocles, Oedipus the King, vv. 1529-30.
[†] Sophocles, Oedipus the King, vv. 1529-30.