Tuesday of Week 21 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 23:23-26

We continue reading the ‘Seven Woes’ listed in yesterday’s commentary. Today’s reading contains the fourth and fifth.

4. You tithe mint, dill, and cumin … (vv 23-24)

In continuing his attack on Pharisaism, Jesus touches on two issues which are not at all irrelevant to our Christian living today. First, he attacks the mentality of those who are sticklers for tiny details of ritual or doctrine while ignoring the fundamental issues of justice, compassion and good faith. The Mosaic Law levied a tithe on agricultural produce. Some rabbis scrupulously applied the law to the most insignificant of plants.

A strict Pharisee too would carefully filter his drinking water in case he might swallow a small insect, which would be regarded as unclean. But, in being so careful of such minutiae, he might well overlook matters of much deeper importance. Jesus is not criticising a conscientious carrying out of rules and regulations, but it is the attitude of hypocritical moral superiority which he attacks.

One can meet Catholics too who tie themselves in knots trying to observe the most petty regulations and can end up becoming the prisoner of scruples. What is more, they can be highly critical of others whom they regard as ‘lax’. People who are more worried about not having observed a full 60 minutes of fast before Communion than focusing on what the wider implications of participating in the Eucharist really mean.

5. You clean the outside of the cup and of the plate… (vv 25-26)

The second point that Jesus makes is to criticise those who concentrate on the tiniest details of external behaviour while totally ignoring the inner spirit.

There are certain Christians who speak and write at length about all the things that are not being done right in the liturgy of the Catholic Church, and who claim for themselves a level of doctrinal and moral orthodoxy to which even Rome does not attain. Sometimes even the Pope does not come up to their expectations.

What is striking about these people is the almost total absence of a sense of love and compassion in their writings and actions. They are only interested in “truth” and “orthodoxy”, as if these things could exist outside of the nitty-gritty of human living. They can be more concerned about the tiniest rubrical details of the liturgy than about the Eucharist as truly a sacrament of a loving community prayerfully centred on the Person of Christ.

On the outside, the behaviour is impeccable, but inside there is a total lack of a true Gospel spirit, the spirit of love and integrity, of compassion and a sense of justice for all. Instead, there can be a heart full of self-righteousness, criticism, anger, resentment, contempt for those who do not think the same, all cloaked in this outer veneer of moral and ritual rectitude.

The two attitudes are closely related and all of us can be touched by them in one degree or another. Let him or her who has never criticised another fellow-Christian cast the first stone!

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