Hypocrisy: Whitewashed Tombs

Matthew 23:27, 28

Attitudes towards and practices involving a dead body differ radically from culture to culture. When the writer was a teenager, he remembers a funeral in the community that involved a child’s death. The unfading part of his memory was the family’s reaction at the funeral. So much physical contact with the body occurred that those in charge of funeral services had to restrain the family from removing the body from the casket.

The writer once lived in a culture that buried a body the day of the death [It was a hot climate with no embalming available, thus quick burial was essential]. Some buried in the yard of their small homes. Some buried under the dirt floor inside their house. There was considerable contact with the body in the preparation and burial process.

From area to area in America, funeral and burial practices vary.

In ancient Israel, attitudes toward dead bodies seem quite strange to most Americans. Generally speaking, anyone who had physical contact with a dead body was regarded as unclean [impure] for seven days (Numbers 19:11-13). If a person failed to complete a specific cleansing [purification] process in that period, he was guilty of defiling God’s place of sacrifice and worship, was to be thrown out of the nation, and was to be considered perpetually unclean [impure] by Israelites.

If a person died suddenly and unexpectedly in a tent, everyone present was unclean [impure] for seven days, the tent was unclean [impure], the contents of the tent were unclean [impure], and every vessel without a “tied on covering” was unclean [impure]. The persons, the tent, and the tent’s contents must be purified.

If someone in an open field touched the corpse of a person who was a victim of violence, or the corpse of a person who died of natural causes, or a human bone, or a grave, that person was unclean [impure] for seven days and must undergo the purification process (Numbers 19:16). The process was administered by a clean [pure] person. Failure of the defiled person to undergo the purification process meant anything or anyone touched by him/her became unclean. Anyone who touched anything the unclean [impure] person touched became unclean [impure] (Numbers 19:22). Uncleanness that did not undergo purification separated one from all Israelites! That is an incredible con-sequence!

The Jew taking the special vow of dedication known as the Nazirite vow could not come near a dead body during the time of the vow (Numbers 6:6). The minimum time of the vow was a 30 day period. In this time, even if a parent died, the person under vow was not to go near the corpse.

Touch transmitted uncleanness [impurity] (Leviticus 5:3). In Numbers 5:1-4, all unclean people were sent out-side Israel’s camp – that included everyone who had touched a corpse. There were even special provisions for Passover for those who had been in contact with a corpse (Numbers 9:6-11). Passover was the most important occasion of worship in Israel! Yet, those who were defiled by contacting a corpse must wait a month to observe Passover.

So stringent were Israel’s laws about having contact with a corpse, there were special requirements for priests to separate themselves from contact with a corpse. If a priest was conducting a tabernacle service as the lead priest, he could not go near a corpse even if it was his father or mother (Leviticus 21:10-15). If a priest went near a corpse, he could not conduct tabernacle rites for a period. He could not even eat of the offerings! (Leviticus 22:4)

When someone died, his or her death resulted in a number of people becoming unclean!

These things are called to your attention for this reason: when Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees whitewashed tombs, he gave a serious indictment! Whitewashed tombs were to be avoided! Contact with them produced immediate consequences. From a distance they looked beautiful and innocent. However, contact with them was horrible because of what was inside. Outside they had the appearance of beautiful innocence. Inside they were full of rotting human flesh and human bones. They had the appearance of being desirably clean. Yet, the truth was that they were horrible unclean.

The scribes and Pharisees were like those tombs! Their appearance was quite deceitful! Outwardly they looked attractive and innocent. However, contact with them was horrible! Why? What was inside produced an influence that separated people from God. Thus Jesus said they were to be avoided! The impact they had on lives produced horrible consequences, and did it quickly!

Remember what Jesus said about the scribes and Pharisees in verses 2 and 3 of this chapter? “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” They look like people focused on God. They talk like people focused on God. Yet they are not! Why? They do not live like people focused on God. Their example is all talk and no substance. They love to instruct, but hate to practice their instructions. Listen to what they say from scripture, but do not allow them to be your example!

To be God’s person in appearance and speech but not in heart was classified by Jesus as hypocrisy! The influence of one’s visible life is important. The influence of one’s person is essential. In the godly, appearance and heart match. If they do not, we produce hypocrisy.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In your personal experience/history, share with the class differences in death/burial practices.
  2. If an Israelite came into contact with a corpse, a human bone, or a grave, what were they to do?
  3. What were the consequences for an Israelite if he/she refused to under-go the purification process?
  4. Use this information to discuss the seriousness of Jesus’ indictment again these scribes and Pharisees.
    In this indictment, why were these scribes and Pharisees hypocrites?
    Should that be of concern to Christians today?