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Matthew 23:29-31, Luke 11:47-48

In the two passages above, we read about Jesus criticising the church leaders of his day, saying that they would have been right in there stoning the Old Testament prophets along with all of the other leaders of the corrupt religious establishment of the day. But Jesus goes on to say something that has never made sense to me. He says that the fact that they build monuments to the Old Testament prophets is evidence that they would not have received the actual prophets if they had been alive at the time. All my life that has never made sense to me. I checked various commentaries, and I got the idea that it embarrassed a lot of the commentary writers as well. Obviously, the people who build monuments to various heroes are not enemies of the people they are honouring; they are the ones who SUPPORT those heroes and all that they stand for. If we cannot believe that, then who can we believe are the modern day supporters of the heroes of the past?

What I have only recently come to recognise is that Jesus was, as usual, challenging some of the many false assumptions that we make, based on our lifelong indoctrination in the ways of the world (which are definitely not his ways). It makes perfect sense to most of us that someone who builds a monument, whether to war heroes, famous statesmen, or spiritual prophets, is doing so out of a personal devotion to the same qualities that those people possessed.

But as I thought about it more deeply, I had to ask myself a couple of probing questions: Are real heroes, and especially heroes of faith and integrity, looking for monuments to be built in their honour? And if not, what kind of people would build monuments to heroes of the past?

I concluded that heroes of the past would be wanting others to aspire to the same qualities that they had. Wouldn't a woman of great courage be wanting to inspire other women to show great courage in carrying on her tradition? Wouldn't a man of great faith be wanting to inspire others to have great faith? And what about prophets? These are people with the courage to speak the truth, even when it could mean death. Wouldn't they be most honoured by others taking up the banner on their behalf and showing by their lives that they too are prepared to die for the truth?

True prophets, according to Jesus, are the exact opposite of the status quo, and yet the kind of people who unveil plaques and other memorials to the prophets of the past are invariably representatives of the status quo... people who like to have their own names on plaques... who love the praises of the world.

Jesus said of John the Baptist: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? People dressed in fine clothes? No way! Such people live in palaces." John was a prophet, and not the sort of person who bends whichever way the wind happens to be blowing. The people that Jesus described as being totally opposite to John the Baptist (wearing pretty clothes and living soft lives) are the Pharisees of today: respectable, dressed in fancy robes, ever promoting mainstream society and invariably defending the status quo. They are always the first ones to be asked to unveil memorials.

So what Jesus was further stating in his rebuke of the Pharisees was that their statues and other monuments to the prophets of the past proved that they were not made of the same stuff as the prophets that they were supposedly honouring. The moment it became expedient to their gutless, lukewarm respectability, they would be stoning the prophets of today... just as their ancestors had done to the prophets of the past.

All the gush that flows from the mouths of such people means nothing if they are not prepared to live it themselves. Gandhi noted that with regard to organisations set up to honour great leaders of the past, and he asked that no such organisations be started in his honour. Nevertheless, we found Gandhians in India who were just like Christians in the West... quick to mouth the platitudes, but loathe to practice the same values.

Having a monument erected in your honour, a street named after you, your name recorded in a history book can motivate some people to do amazing things. But it's all about self-recognition, and not about serving God, not about doing what is right regardless of the cost. Think about that the next time you see someone publicly praising Jesus or opening a new church building. Ask yourself whether their actions prove them to be true followers of Jesus, or whether it may actually be proof that they too would have Jesus killed if he arrived today and threatened their privileged positions in the church and in society.

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