On the outside, the people against whom Jesus is speaking appear devout and pious: they build memorials to the great prophets, putting the capstone, so to speak, on their legacy. But they are putting the capstone of a house of blood; it is a dramatic image to be sure, but Jesus is deadly serious. How better, after all, to forever silence a prophet, than to build a memorial? For a memorial oftentimes does our remembering for us: we build a statue of an influential person, and it is as though we leave them there. How easy it is for us to slip into a false sense of security when we have our religious artwork on our walls, our holy medals around our necks, and then we forget what it all means, what they point to. The danger is always there: it is so simple to let memorials do the remembering for us.
This is not to condemn devotional items, artwork, and statuary: quite the contrary. Rather, Jesus is reminding the people that the memorials have tremendous power, both to bless and condemn. For if the people erecting memorials really wished to honor the prophets they claim to revere, they would not spend their time building monuments, but rather listening to the word they spoke and would believe in the Messiah of whom they preached. Yet because the people reject Jesus—and would come, as He mentions, to reject His Apostles—they are consenting to the murder of the prophets, and thus the memorials they build do the prophets no honor, but insult them instead.
Jesus says they will “be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah,” all the prophets from A to Z, because they have begun to kill Jesus in their own hearts, the very One for whom the ancients were prophets in the first place. In their hostility they will silence the prophets forever.
This is an incredibly hard Gospel, but again Jesus is underscoring the importance of integrity. Had these people been building memorials to the prophets from a place of true faith and a desire to see their prophecies fulfilled, their hearts would have been open to the teaching of Jesus; He cries woe also to the scholars of the law, those intimately familiar with Scripture and the way one was to live in accordance with it. Yet even they would not receive Jesus into their hearts; worse, they would use their knowledge of the law to convince others to reject Jesus as well. What good is it to love the prophets—or the saints—but not love Jesus? What good is it to read Scripture, to know Scripture, but not love Jesus? All of Scripture, and every true prophet and saint points to a single truth: Jesus.
This “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is upheld by the Church to lead us to Him; the greatest memorial we can build for the saints—from Agnes to Zita—is to love Our Lord and allow Him to transform us into saints ourselves. We are to be the memorials of the prophets.