For Those of Us Who Build Tombs for the Prophets

I don’t know what’ll come out of Pope Benedict’s resignation, although I suspect that part of the conversation in coming weeks will revolve around the evils of the Catholic Church.

Some of those criticisms are well deserved. Others will be based on distortions of what’s happened in the past. I’ve been trying to think of what I might want to say in light of recent events, and I think my mind settled on this idea: it may not be best to speak too much at all.

Here’s why:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate 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’. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town …”

Matthew 23:29-34

In a pretty kick-ass moment, Jesus condemns the religious authorities for building tombs for the prophets who were murdered by their forefathers. This is ironic, in light of their continued rejection of the Son of God, of whom those prophets spoke.

What Jesus is saying is, and how I think this is relevant to our discussion, this: it’s easy to criticize the mistakes of past generations and insist that you’re not like them, all the while ignoring your complicity in modern crimes.

I think that’s true of my generation. Evangelicals are very good at condemning past Christians for the horrors of the Crusades, the Inquisition, hunting witches and the like. They’re very good at describing what they see to be corruption in the papacy, all the way down through the local priest. They’ve excelled at criticizing doctrines they may not have taken the time to understand**.

And, since we’re on the subject, they’re quite adept at thinking that “Christian history” only means what happened in Europe, but that’s for another post.

But those same evangelicals are much less prone to talk about the mistakes of our generation. We can blame the line of popes for any number of problems, but we clam up when it’s time to measure evangelical leaders by the same standard. Instead, let’s talk about past Christians and their mistakes–because then we can feel better about not doing what they did.

And in the meantime, we won’t worry about Bryan Fischer, who has repeatedly and without apology slandered gay people.

We can feel better about standing aside when Mark Driscoll claims that God gives him visions of people having sex. (Some people may object to my including Driscoll here. If that’s you, then I’d respond by saying that there is something seriously questionable about the ministry of a man who believes God sends him mental porn. If anyone other than Driscoll had made the claims in that video, wouldn’t you consider that to be a huge red flag?)

If we’re reluctant to call out our treasured leaders, then we’re even more hesitant to measure ourselves by the standard that we measure the Catholic Church, the popes, and, well, most people who don’t belong to our tribe.

I can think of a few spiritual discussions I’ve had with people, many of which eventually turn to the topic of what’s wrong with the church. More often than not, most of us–myself included–are all too eager that churches build enormous structures for themselves, wasting money that could’ve gone to the poor, and don’t do anything to engage people who don’t share our faith.

And while those things are true in many (but not all) cases, you know what I’ve never heard in those conversations?

I never hear what’s wrong with us. With me. With you. And I’m rarely, if ever, willing to volunteer what’s wrong with me.

I can accuse churches of being callous toward the poor; maybe you can, too. But can’t remember the last time I was a part of a spiritual conversation in which we resolved to give up going to Starbucks so we’d have more money to give to people in need. I know this hasn’t happened for me (and, consequently, this is why some of the most convicting passages in Scripture for me have to do with helping those in need). I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m only pointing out that, in my experience, these conversations tend to focus on what’s wrong with everyone else.

So I think Jesus is absolutely right, both about the Pharisees of his time and the religious folks of ours.

We build tombs for prophets while ignoring their prophetic voices.

Most Christians believe that sin exists (and those who don’t, should). I think every generation that has claimed to follow Jesus has always had an easier time recognizing Original Sin in others but never in themselves. It’s always going to be easy for a generation to believe it’s better than its predecessors; that won’t ever change. However, Jesus warned us against judging others while ignoring our own problems.

I’m not saying that Pope Benedict should be immune from criticism (or, for that matter, legal action). Rather, we may want to take a long hard look at ourselves before we eagerly point out the cracks in everyone else.

** I feel the need to say this, because I’m almost certain that we’re going to see distortions of Catholic teaching in the near future, if not already: I know of no Catholic who thinks that we worship Mary or the pope. I know of no Catholic who thinks that grace comes because you’ve earned it through good works. From what I’ve seen, claims to the contrary are distortions of what the Church actually teaches.

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