“Woe to you … you impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).
Gal 5:18-25; Luke 11:42-46
Our perceptions of Jesus as meek and humble (Matt 11:25) contrast with the ferocity of his attacks on the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels. He calls them “hypocrites and whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones” (Matt 23:27). In his quarrels with them over the Sabbath, ritual purity and the Law, he accuses them of posing as models of righteousness while in their hearts they are plotting his murder.
What drove Jesus to these furious rhetorical ripostes? Was he giving back for their insinuations that he was possessed by Satan or their questioning of his legitimacy or attacks on his followers? The final lines of today’s Gospel reveal his deepest criticism and the source of his anger: They were supposed to represent God to the people, but instead they used religion to burden them with laws that only distanced them from God and filled them with fear. These leaders did this in the name of God as a way to empower themselves as the arbiters of God’s justice.
Synagogue officials controlled village society with moral censure. The lawyers ruled on even the smallest of matters of ritual regarding food, work, worship and health. The Temple priests ran a marketplace selling animals for sacrifice, collecting fees for prayers, filling the treasury and their own pockets. The Pharisees wore special robes and sat at the head table at banquets, conspiring with the elite Sadducees in the Sanhedrin.
Jesus was filled with indignation when he witnessed these leaders lording it over people, distorting the image of God he knew was not the unapproachable judge they portrayed, but a loving parent. They were blocking access to his Abba, the source of unconditional love, divine shepherd seeking lost sheep, advocate for the poor, outcast and sick, patient forgiver of sinners, savior of all in need of mercy. Jesus’ deepest emotion was not anger but compassion for the victims of any false presentation of God.
Nineteenth century French writer George Sand, pen name for Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, often used her novels to expose social forces that shamed and abused women and the poor and to protest the wanton violence during the Revolution. In a powerful collection of photographs from around the world published in 1955, her words appear under a photo of Jews being rounded up by Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw Ghetto: “Humanity is outraged in me and with me. We must not dissimulate or try to forget this indignation, which is one of the most passionate forms of love.”
We have witnessed similar abuses of power and distortions of God by leaders detached from the impact of their words and behaviors on others. For anyone scandalized by Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees, Sand’s identification of indignation with love conveys the force of Jesus' confrontation with those who would blaspheme by depicting God as anything other than Absolute Mercy.