Whitewashed or Washed White
Matthew 23:25-26, 27-28
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (NIV)
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (NIV)
The culture of Jesus’ day was religious. To fit in, one had to practice or at least give the appearance of practicing specified religious norms. Those who failed to practice things like ceremonial hand washing or abstaining from all physical activity on the Sabbath were scorned and even ostracized. The need to stay ceremonially clean made places like graveyards and things like graves off limits.
According to Mosaic Law, "Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days” (NIV, Numbers 19:16, pg. 142). So much for being an archaeologist or a mortician.
Can you image making a three week pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover only to accidentally step on a grave and thereby disqualifying yourself from entering the temple grounds for seven days? By the time you’re clean, Passover is over.
To avoid defilement by accidentally stepping on or touching a grave, the Pharisees painted the tombs in Palestine with a lime paste or whitewash at the beginning of every year. Whitewashing accomplished two purposes:
1) it identified tombs so they could be avoided and
2) it beautified tombs so they could be admired.
In our text Jesus says that the religious leaders of His day were “beautiful.” The Greek term is horaios and originally it spoke of that which was seasonable, appropriate to its time, at its best, or ripe. These leaders appeared to be the cream of the crop. They were viewed by onlookers as being superbly fit for their lofty positions. They were beautiful.
The Pharisees were definitely fastidious practitioners of the law. In Luke 18:9, we are allowed to eavesdrop on the prayer of a Pharisee. He says
11 ’God, I thank you that I am not… a robber, an evildoer or an adulterer…. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ (NIV)
This man was honest in his financial dealings. He wasn’t a robber. He was loyal to his marriage vows. He was no adulterer. In addition to not being an evildoer, he fasted twice a week and he was a tither, not to mention that he stood to pray in honor of God. You’ve got to admit that he’s doing a lot better than most of the people sitting in pews this morning. Those aren’t bad credentials, are they?
Even Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees tithed, gave to the needy and were men of prayer. So why shouldn’t one feel good about not doing evil and about doing good?