Whited Sepulchers

I sometimes wonder whether, had I been around when Jesus was preaching, I would have been among the small minority of people who accepted His message and Him. Or whether I would have been one of the many who didn’t, who reacted to Him with fear, anger, and self-righteous indignation.

Would I have been one of those who, though they did not reject Him overtly, said to themselves, “This man is special and important, and as long as I can keep doing whatever I’m doing, and feel more special and important, then fine. If things get tough and the feeling goes away, well then, to hell with it (or, in this case, to the Cross with it)”?

It’s hard to imagine that I would have been good enough to be part of that very small group, pretty much only a few women at first, who said, “This is my beloved Lord, the Lord of my life, and where He goes, I will follow, even to the Cross.”  More likely, I would have been among those who accepted some of the nicer teachings and then rejected the “hard sayings” – one of those who said to his friends, “I like some of the things this Jesus says, but He just goes too far. The way He says things sometimes – they’re just not. . .what?. .intellectual enough.  He’s not careful or prudent.  He’s going to get us into trouble.”

As an academic, I wonder whether I would have been one of those second- or third-rate scholars, dutifully reading the prescribed books (either Greek or Hebrew), going to the prescribed rituals (either Roman or Jewish), and debating about political and cultural issues in the customary ways (Pharisee Party, Sadducee Party, Zealot Party, Roman official). Would I have allowed Christ to change me?  Or would I have been one of those who found Christ and Christ’s message just a little too discomfiting?

I suspect I would have been one of those who went to worship dutifully in the prescribed manner but was empty inside; who would rather crucify the annoying Savior than allow myself to be transformed by Him.  I fear I would have been one of those “whited sepulchers” of which Christ spoke that “appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones.”

Would Christ have said of someone like me: “All his works he does to be seen by other men: he makes broad his phylacteries and enlarges the borders of his garments; he loves the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seat in the synagogue, and in the market to be called, Rabbi, Rabbi.”  I worry about this because Christ is still alive, still out to transform our lives.  And I wonder whether I’m any different from the biblical “bad guys.”


I wonder, because when you’re a Catholic convert, as I am, you notice things.  You notice fellow Catholics – even pious, “conservative” Catholics – who dress nicely, go to Mass, listen to the readings week after week from Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah about living righteous lives and taking care of the widow and orphan, listen to the warnings of Christ in the New Testament about the rich man and Lazarus.

And then, when Monday comes, they lie and cheat in their businesses just like everyone else.  You find Catholic institutions who pride themselves on their shrines to Our Lady or to Mother Teresa, on their food banks or centers for social justice, who treat their own employees like disposable trash.

Often, we Catholics are like that child you tell, “Now don’t eat before dinner.  Did you hear me?  Don’t eat.”  The child shakes his head yes, and then reaches for a cookie.  Time and again, we hear St. Paul exhort Christians they must “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”

We hear him warn those who are “not busy at work,” but who have become “busybodies.”  Time and again, we hear Christ say, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

And yet still we find squads of angry, uncharitable comments on social media from people who then justify themselves saying “This is true Catholic charity,” as though the Scribes and Pharisees were being charitable to Jesus and the Jewish people when they nailed Christ to the cross.

Are we at Mass, going through the motions, and then living lives at odds with the Gospel?  And if we are, how would we know? Are we, like so many in Jesus’ day, blinding ourselves and stopping up our ears to the truth?  Perhaps we need a Lenten check-list.

Did I make angry, self-righteous posts on social media?  Did I convince myself they were totally justified?

Did I mistake “atomistic individualism” (no one can tell me what to do) with real freedom?

Did I foster America’s hyper-partisan zealotry, or did I do my best to meet it with charitable, measured calm?

Did I go to Mass, make pious gestures to Mary and the saints, and then engage in “business as usual” in my secular dealings?

Do I call myself a “Catholic” and then assume this should never require me to make any sacrifices of my wealth, status, and comfort to defend the Church and carry out her corporal works of mercy?

Finally, I wonder whether most of us would recognize Christ if He returned?  Or would there be a large, angry mob trying to nail Him to the Cross in service to “religious piety” or because too many thought Him a threat to the nation?

As I say, sometimes I wonder.  It’s not comforting.


*Image: Christ on the Cross by Eugène Delacroix, 1853 [National Gallery, London]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.