30 Oct, Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s Gospel calls us to examine our conscience about the sincerity of our words and of our lives. We should rid ourselves of all hypocrisy and respect the truth about ourselves, in God’s sight. Bishops and others in a leadership role, especially, need to be self-critical, but the potential to be something of a Pharisee (in the negative sense) resides in all of us.
Mal 1:14 ff. The prophet Malachi threatens those who cheat and then criticises Israel’s unworthy priests, for not listening to God and for misleading the people with false teaching.
1 Thess 2:7ff. Paul recalls the love and zeal he has shown to the Thessalonians. He is glad that they have accepted his message as God’s word.
Mt 23:1-12. Jesus attacks the scribes and Pharisees for their false piety. His message is, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
– that priests and religious may bear a positive witness to Christ, by the quality of their living.
– that we may never judge people by appearances.
– for all who are tempted to be insincere in their public lives, that they may seek integrity and an upright conscience.
– that we may always spurn privilege as unworthy of the gospel we profess to believe.
Christ and Pharisees (John Murtagh)
It is important that the homily should not distort the teaching of Christ by giving an emphasis to some personal point of view of the preacher, a point of view which does not receive similar emphasis in the Gospels. In choosing the evil and dangers of Pharisaism as his subject for the homily, the preacher cannot possibly give a false emphasis; the synoptic Gospels are replete with accounts of the many conflicts between Christ and” the Pharisees and his denunciations of the sect.
What follows v. 12 and continues to the end of the is known as the “Woes” against the Pharisees. It is a pity that this part of Mat. ch 23 has not been selected for any Sunday throughout the three year cycle, for it helps to give a picture of the dangers, not only of Pharisaism in the time of Christ, but of the perils of the false practice of religion in all ages, including our own.
Pharisaism can be seen from several angles. It is the belief that one can save oneself through the observance of law, through the performance of works of piety, fasting, prayer and almsgiving with an eye on the praise of men. The Pharisees tended to put stress on little things (“Tithe of mint, dill and cummin’) while neglecting the much more important matters of faith, justice and mercy. They were noted for their zeal in making converts who in due time became twice as bad as their converters. The outcome was that the Pharisees tended to be hypocrites, a title which Christ bestowed on them with great liberality.
The “Woes” of Matthew against the Pharisees end with Christ denouncing them for their violence, especially against the prophets whose blood they shed and whose tombs they later adorned. “You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets! Very well then, finish off the work that your fathers began.” Mat. 23:32. The finishing off of the work was the death of Christ for which the Pharisees were largely responsible. The works of piety, the strict observance of law was a defence mechanism at work within the Pharisees. They suffered from a sense of guilt which they refused to acknowledge, as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican informs us. However, if guilt is not acknowledged within oneself, it seeks a victim outside oneself. We can say that Christ was the victim on whom the Pharisees projected their own unacknowledged sense of guilt. No wonder that the repentant sinner of the Parable who cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is exalted by Christ above the Pharisee who thanked God he was not asinner.
Today’s Gospel is an invitation to us today, especially the more pious among us, to examine behind our good works. Are they an escape from a sense of guilt? Is there a link in this island of ours for our well-known piety and our equally well-known violence? If so, the remedy is not the rejection of piety and good works, but a search for a precious gift of God, the willingness to face up to ourselves by acknowledging our personal and national guilt.
Our Whole Lives As Well (Angela O’Rourke)
Today’s second reading issues a challenge to all Christians – especially the preacher! We are supposed to live up to what we say we are, followers of Christ. We are, in a single word, called to live by love, love in its deepest and Christian sense.
This word “Love” is much bandied about but less frequently understood and practiced. Jesus gave the supreme example of its real meaning in his life, death and resurrection. But he did not die and rise in order to prevent or excuse us from sharing personally in his selfless experience. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to be Christians with Him, we must in our turn undergo death and resurrection. We must practise what we preach! We must mean what we say and do what we mean.
In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons there is a scene in which Margaret, the daughter of Thomas More, pleads with her father to desist from his opposition to the dissolute Henry VIII and swear to the Act of Succession. So lie will save his life and be released from jail. But More is unwilling to do something he doesn’t believe in. He says: “If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly.. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit us far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and we have to choose to be human at all.. why then perhaps we must stand fast a little – even at the risk of being heroes.” Margaret, emotionally, still begs him to compromise: “Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” And her father replies in words that should be written in gold: “Well.. finally.. it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
This is the love that Christ spoke about and practised. In the end we shall be judged on that alone. Our often ragged efforts to bring direction and meaning to the “animated aimlessness” of our lives will – if touched by the love of God and expressed through genuine service of our fellow human beings – have an eternal value.
What’s wrong with the Scribes? (Jim Mazzone)
The scribes in the time of Jesus were like religious intellectuals, theologians, and professional lawyers who are adept in applying the Law to everyday life. The Pharisees in the time of Jesus were like a fraternity of laymen who joined together to meticulously observed the law with great precision. Both groups already have been the object of ridicule by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew – and this will not be the last of the verbal lashes that Jesus delivers.
One particular route that one might trace regarding the lineage of teaching authority to the chair of Moses in the time of Jesus may look like this: Moses to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the scribes and Pharisees. Therefore, the chair of Moses is an image from which teaching authority comes. Some scholars also posit that the seat in the synagogue from which discourses were given was referred to as the chair of Moses. If the Pharisees and Scribes actually taught from this seat in the synagogue; then the words of Jesus could be taken literally – they have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Nevertheless, “their example should be avoided, as their motives are seriously flawed. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on the shoulders of people, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” This in contrast to the words of Jesus – “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation “Rabbi”.
A few words about phylacteries, tassels, seating and greetings. Phylacteries: Both in Exodus (13:9) and in Deuteronomy (6:8; 11:18) are found commands by God to keep His Word or Law close. To obey this command a Jew, while praying, would wear what look like small leather boxes – one strapped to the wrist – one strapped to the forehead. Four scripture passages written on parchment could be found In the singe compartment box strapped to the wrist. The passages are from Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The box that was strapped to the forehead contained four chambers – each chamber housing one of the four aforementioned passages. In the time of Jesus it was not uncommon for the Pharisees to wear especially large phylacteries in order to draw attention to their obedience to the word and Law of God.
Tassels: In Deuteronomy (22:12) another sign is established by God to be a reminder of His Word and Law. Tassels or fringes were to be attached to the hems of the outer garment in its four corners to remind a Jew of his attachment to the commandments. Today these tassels or fringes can be found attached to prayer shawls. Similar to the large phylacteries, these tassels could be enlarged by the Pharisees in order to attract attention to their obedience and piety.
Seating: the seat of honor at any banquet would be on either side of the person hosting the banquet. In the synagogue the front seats actually faced the entire congregation much as the chair of the presider does in churches today. These were considered to be seats of honor and they would typically be reserved for the elders. Those individuals seated here were in clear view of the congregation and their actions and piety could be plainly observed.
Greetings: The Scribes enjoyed being called Rabbi. It literally means – my great one – and it was a title of respect for Jewish teachers and leaders in the time of Jesus. Salutary etiquette demanded that the inferior always had the obligation to greet his superior. The longer the salutation or the more important the title used in the salutation, the more important the person.
“As for you, do not be called – Rabbi. You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers… Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” A stern rependance-call to the many, whether in church or state, who take their stand on status and honorific titles!
What Pharisees? (Anthony O’Leary)
This liturgy confronts the preacher with challenging texts. Ch 23 of Matthew is notorious for its outright criticism of the behaviour of the Jewish leaders and it probably reflects an acrimonious atmosphere between Jews and Christians. But in the midst of the negative critique of religious leaders who are inconsistent, (and where can we find any human being who isn’t inconsistent to some degree), there are strong positive strands that touch on basics, the dignity and freedom of all believers. Jesus’ words underline the fundamental relationships that are common to all Christians:- God as parent father and the Christian as child of God and brothersister to every person. The central person who facilitates these relationships is Christ. The preacher could refer to Augustine’s words that he was a Christian with them but a bishop for them. Another useful image is that of the wheel that forms part of the clock. Alone it is just a wheel and can accomplish little, but when it is set in a new system it can work with oher pieces to do something much above its natural capacity; it can tell the time. Similarly all Christians equally share their adopted childhood, but in new relationships of the community called Church, each person can help accomplish something in the life of the Church, both in sacramental celebrations and in the way the Church is present to people, her mission as light of the nations. The holy words of religious people can become an obstacle to real faith, as we see in the prophet’s reading. The most sacred duty of the Jewish priests to teach the Torah has become the occasion of people being led astray. Perhaps in our Christian experience we have seen leaders who encroached on the glorious freedom of the children of God by their detailed interpretations of Church regulations as God’s Law. One could try to make people aware of their baptismal dignity and their call to grow in freedom and responsibility both for their own lives and for the life of the Church. Another possible line of exhortation could point t Christ as the unique teacher and encourage all to search for Christ’s way in their own lifestyle and circumstances. The reference to not calling anyone “Father” could be used as a way of nudging people not to be childish in a credulity that refuses to question and possibly fears the insecurity of questions that do not have clear answers. This Gospel affords the opportunity to confront the whole issue of Christian authority and its authentic exercise by all the baptised.
Another approach might lie in exploring Paul’s notion of the Gospel as the Word of God. The Thessalonians has known Paul and his way of life with them, a familiar figure, one of themselves. Yet familiarity is not to breed contempt for the value of Paul’s message. It is communication from the Lord. The mystery of God who is both transcendent and immanent is reflected in the Gospel, human word but also truly the self communication of God. This faith reality of God as present in the human situation contrasts with the belief systems of some the Thessalonians, who had given up work to be ready for the glorious coming of God’s kingdom at the return of Jesus. Focusing on the imagined near-arrival of the Final Judge, the Thessalonians abandoned their everyday responsibilities to devote themselves to “appropriate” religious devotions. The realist Paul brings them back to basics with his later cry of “let them not eat.” It is not just the cry of a pragmatist, but of one who realises that God is in the everyday, that huan words and relationships mediate the Love and self giving of God. The preacher could point to various styles of religion prevalent today that do not encourage appropriate involvement and feed on apocalyptic speculation or so-called revelation.
Attracting Attention (Liam Swords)
There were about fifty of us under the same roof. It was an international residence attached to one of the pontifical universities in Rome. The majority were priests, ranging in age from late twenties to sixty plus. There were a small group of seminarians and the rest were lay students. We represented almost twenty nationalities, from all five continents. What intrigued me most were the clerics, priests and seminarians. I had spent the previous twenty years living on my own, largely isolated from clerical circles. It was a new experience for me to live in an almost exclusively clerical environment. A sizeable minority wore clerical dress. The others were indistinguishable from the laity. The breakdown did not seem to follow any recognisable pattern. It wasn’t a question of age, though many of the seminarians and some of the younger priests wore the clerical collar. Nor was there a clear geographical division. Most of them – whom I later regarded as the sanior pars, when I got to know them better – wore “civvis.” They came from places as disparate as South Korea and Brazil, Kenya and Australia. The clerically dressed were almost exclusively confined to Argentina, Switzerland and oddly enough, the United States. As I got to know them better I came to realise that they also represented a different mindset. They had a conservative, almost pre-Vatican II vision of the church.
Clerical dress, at least in my view, has always been a non issue. For a large part of my priestly life, I worked in France where the clergy wear lay clothes. Prior to that I worked in the secular world of publishing and television, where it was customary for priests to dress like other employees. Wearing the collar there would be frowned on as an attempt to pull rank.
Besides, being an historian, I was always aware of the wide range of clerical attire down through the centuries, from the powdered wigs and frilly cuffs of the ancient régime clerics in France to the peasant garb of penal priests in Ireland. Let history judge, but for me our finest hour was those times of persecution when priests were disguised as others, rather than those decadent times like our own when, it would seem, others are often disguised as priests.
That there are solid arguments in favour of a distinctive clerical dress goes without saying. Perhaps the strongest is that the priest in the parish should be easily recognisable by those who seek his help. The other argument that clerical dress is a sign is more questionable. The problem is, a sign of what? If I lived the gospel, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Abbé Pierre in France, I would feel no embarrassment wearing a habit or a collar. But a sign works both ways. Recently I was taking a stroll in Piazza Navona. There were three young Franciscan friars in their brown robes and sandals just ahead of me on the pavement. It is not an unusual sight in Rome. They stopped at a cash-dispenser, fished out their credit cards from the deep folds of their habits and withdrew some money. Most ordinary people nowadays do the same. And so do I. But in this case the clash of symbols deeply disturbed me. Rome is full of down-and-outs who sleep in doorways or on the pavements. What kind of impression would a sight lik that make on them? What would that beggar man, St Francis, have thought?
But the strongest argument of all is today’s gospel where Christ castigates the scribes and Pharisees who did “not practise what they preach.” “Everything they do is done to attract attention,” he said, “like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassles, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.” He could well have been describing the world where I first started life as a priest. The collar was much a symbol of power and privilege then and provoked a good deal of anticlericalism. I remember my sister, the mother of a few young children, returning home from the butcher’s, furious. She had to queue for ages. A priest joined the end of the queue and when the butcher spotted the clerical collar, he called him up to serve him immediately.
It didn’t pacify my sister when I told her that the priest was probably embarrassed by this special treatment and did not refuse because he did not wish to hurt the butcher’s feelings. “He doesn’t have a dinner to cook and children to mind and feed like me,” she retorted.
Coincidentally, that is exactly how St Paul describes his priestly work among the Thessalonians: “Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children.” Whatever clothes we priests wear – and lam still of two minds about it – we must follow the teaching of Christ: “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Otherwise, we will earn the curse Malachi threatened on the priests who strayed from the right way and become “contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people.” Some might say we have reached that point already.
The Psalmist has got it right when he said,
0 Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.
First Reading: Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10
Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.
But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction. Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13
Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.