The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
This is the sixth of seven woes Jesus pronounced on the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus condemns them, calling them whitewashed tombs: brilliantly white on the outside but full of decay on the inside.
That analogy described the state of their hearts and souls. These men looked holy and pious but were filled with the worst kinds of sin (verse 28). By steering the faithful away from Jesus, whom they so hated, they were also keeping them from knowing God. In addition, they had their temple racket, described in the aforementioned woes, which was nothing short of extortion. Matthew Henry explains:
God is jealous for his honour in his laws and ordinances, and resents it if they be profaned and abused.
… they were at this time plotting to murder Christ, to whom all the prophets bore witness.
The Jews had a practice of whitewashing tombs, because touching one meant that person was unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:16):
Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
Painting them white was akin to a huge ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ sign.
Henry tells us (emphases mine):
John MacArthur has more on this practice, especially important before Passover. A person travelling to Jerusalem for that feast could not participate in certain rituals if he accidentally touched a tomb, because that act would have made him unclean:
On the 15th Avadar, which is the month of March in Israel in the time of our Lord, there was a very unusual custom. It was right after the spring rains and the rains that came washed away many things. One of the things they washed away was white-wash. You say where was white-wash used? It was on walls, it was on houses sometimes, but most specifically the Jews used to white-wash the tombs. They would white-wash those limestone caves and limestone tombs where people were buried, the more prominent people were buried that way. And the reason they did that was because in preparation of Passover, along the roads and the hillsides where people would be traversing, they feared that people might inadvertently touch a tomb and thus be defiled. And because of the ceremonial cleansing process necessary, they could void out certain activities in the Passover season.
And so to accommodate the Passover visitors who might not know where the tombs were and also just to keep the rest of the people clear of them, they went around the city of Jerusalem with white-wash. In some cases, they white-washed the entire tomb, historians tell us. In other cases, they just painted white-washed bones on the outside so that people wouldn’t touch them lest according to Numbers 19:16, they’d be ceremonially defiled.
The lesson here is to pray often for divine grace so that we remain pure in heart and mind. A pure interior will reflect itself in our outward behaviour and demeanour.
Similarly, we must avoid false teachers — and other leaders — who present themselves as being holy yet have dark souls and depraved hearts.
Satan doesn’t present himself as being evil. He masquerades as being respectable.
Henry warns against hypocrisy, which he saw as the worst sin of all:
Hypocrisy is the worst iniquity of all other. Note, It is possible for those that have their hearts full of sin, to have their lives free from blame, and to appear very good.
He reminds us that God sees and knows all things.
Nothing is hidden from the Almighty:
… what will it avail us, to have the good word of our fellow-servants, if our Master doth not say, Well done? When all other graves are opened, these whited sepulchres will be looked into, and the dead men’s bones, and all the uncleanness, shall be brought out, and be spread before all the host of heaven, Jeremiah 8:1,2. For it is the day when God shall judge, not the shows, but the secrets, of men. And it will then be small comfort to them who shall have their portion with hypocrites, to remember how creditably and plausibly they went to hell, applauded by all their neighbours.
Next time: Matthew 23:29-33