Sunday of week 31 of Ordinary Time

Commentary on Malachi 1:14-2:2.8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9.13; Matthew 23:1-12

WE ARE COMING very near the end of the Church year.  We are also coming to the end of Matthew’s Gospel where there is a growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his people.  But there is no conflict with the ordinary people who are delighted and amazed at the words and actions of Jesus.

The readings today contain serious attacks on the religious leadership.

The prophet Malachi in the First Reading says: “You have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your teaching… And so I in my turn have made you contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people in repayment for the way you have not kept to my paths but have shown partiality in your administration.”

A mixed group

It is important to note that, in the Gospel, Jesus is not making an attack on all the Pharisees and all spiritual leaders.  We know that there were some very good Pharisees.  Generally speaking, the Pharisees were among the most observant and devout of Jews.  Nicodemus, the man who came to see Jesus by night, was a Pharisee.  It was he, too, who arranged to have Jesus buried after his death on the cross.  Another highly revered Pharisee was Gamaliel, who urged caution in acting against the disciples of Jesus preaching the gospel.  If they are frauds, their movement will collapse, he said, but if it is of God, there is nothing can be done to stop them.

What Jesus was attacking was not specific people so much as a certain arrogant and hypocritical way of thinking and acting, of which some people in his time were guilty.

Three points

Jesus attacks this mentality in three areas.

a. He says the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees should be followed because they are simply handing on the truths of their faith.  But their behaviour is a different matter altogether; this should not be imitated.  They create a double standard — they say one thing and do another.

In the film “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, the main character, Miss Brodie, a schoolteacher, constantly presents the highest ideals of Truth, Goodness and Beauty to her students.  But once, when challenged on a breach of her own teaching, she haughtily replies: “Do as I say; don’t do as I do.”  It is something all authority figures, be they parents or priests, politicians or policemen, can find themselves in practice saying.

We sometimes tell the young or those ‘under’ us not to do something “because I am telling you”.  Is that in itself a sufficient reason?  Real authority is not the exercise of power but of enabling people to do and be what they are called to do and be.  If I may quote a certain prime minister, it is a matter not of overpowering but of empowering.

This attitude affects not only religious leaders of all times and places but also politicians who make our laws and do not keep them; teachers who give conflicting messages to their students; above all, parents who create double standards by forbidding their children to do what they have no hesitation in doing themselves.  Worse still, are those leaders — religious, political, educational or parental — who impose heavy obligations but then do nothing to help in their being carried out.

b. The second criticism is of those in authority who claim special privileges: the wearing of special and distinct uniforms, the expectation that they are deserving of certain perks — not having to pay for certain services, company car, executive dining room, even special toilets…

We all remember the elaborate clothes bishops used to wear implying a certain sacred quality.  Things are becoming simpler nowadays and often bishops are indistinguishable from priests (and, even in some countries, from lay people).  Priests in turn could in the past use the ‘collar’ to expect special treatment; now many dress like everyone else.  And there is a clear message there about status and power.

c. There is the question of titles. There are religious leaders who insist on being addressed by their proper titles: Your Eminence, Your Grace, Monsignor or even Father.  In political life and the social scene, great store is often set on titles before one’s name or letters after it.  Often large sums of money are offered to acquire these things.

Only one Lord

The point Jesus wants to make is that only God himself as the source of all life has the right to titles of Lordship or authority.  Secondly, only those are truly great who are totally at the service of their brothers and sisters.

You are not great because you wear special clothes;

you are not great because someone carries a cross or a mace in front of you;

you are not great because people step back to let you go first;

you are not great because you arrive in a chauffeur-driven limousine or appear regularly on the television news.

You are great when, whoever you are, you use your God-given talents to benefit the people around you.  If you are not doing that you are not great in any sense of the word.

It is easy to read today’s Gospel and start pointing fingers at others but it is important that we see how it applies in my own life.  The Gospel is always addressed to ME.  And today I need to hear what it is saying to me now.  Of course, I can point a criticising finger at all the officials I know, political, religious or otherwise, but am I so different?  How often do I stand on ceremony?  How touchy am I about how people treat me, especially if I have some title or responsibility, even if if just that of a parent or schoolteacher?  Respect cannot be demanded but only earned.

Like loving mothers

In today’s Second Reading from the First Letter to the Thessalonians Paul speaks of himself and other Church leaders acting “like a mother… devoted and protective… lov[ing] you so much.”  They were ready not only to hand on the Gospel (that is not so difficult) but their “whole lives as well”.  And, unlike the Pharisees and their like, Paul wanted in no way to be a burden on any one.  God’s message then comes across as “a living power” for those who believe.  The Gospel should never come across as an extra burden.  On the contrary, it is meant to produce a liberating experience, a lifting of burdens.

The Pharisees acted as if their teaching was their own and they expected people to honour them.  Paul, however, in today’s reading tells the Thessalonians that his teaching is not really his.  “You heard the message that we brought you as God’s message, you accepted it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking.”  Similarly for parents, priests and teachers.  We are only channels of God’s Word and his Truth.  We never grasp it fully and we are simply stewards handing it on.  The only power is the power of the Word itself, the power of Truth and of Love.

“Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children,” says Paul, “we felt so devoted and protective towards you, and had come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News (the Gospel) but our whole lives as well.”

That is what service means.  As long as we have our health and energy, each of us should do our best not to be a burden on others.  When we truly try hard to offer what we have for the well-being of others we are not likely to be such a burden.  As we have said before, when everyone is giving, then everyone is receiving.  It is a beautiful way to live but it is not the way of our rat-race, competitive society which thinks only of “How much can I get?”

Fragile vessels

Those we serve need to be aware that what we communicate does not originate from us.  We are, in Paul’s image, fragile vessels of clay.  There is no need for us to claim that we embody fully in ourselves the ideals of Christ we try to share with others.  There is a vulnerability and weakness in all parents, priests, teachers and other authority figures that we need to admit to openly.

The Church itself is to some extent responsible for placing unrealistic expectations of moral perfection on our clergy.  In the past especially, they were presented somehow as different from “ordinary” people; they lived on a higher plane of humanity from the rest.  When the feet of clay are revealed there is shock and disillusion and scandal.  But scandal is very much in the eye and expectations of the beholder.  Parents and teachers too can have the same problem.  Not to mention politicians, doctors, lawyers, social workers and the like.  We all like to surround ourselves with a certain aura but it is not the reality.  What is difficult to tolerate is the hypocrisy which Jesus so rightly attacks and of which we are all at one time or another guilty.

When we put ourselves on a pedestal of authority, we are in danger of being knocked down.  When, following the advice of Jesus, we realise that real greatness is in offering ourselves in service as a brother/sister to brothers/sisters, then we are likely to meet support, understanding and cooperation in bringing people closer to God.  For such people, the loneliness at the top will never be a problem.

Children can perfectly understand the weakness of their parents and adults the foibles of their leaders.  What they really resent is any form of pretence or phoniness and especially double standards.  We are all given different responsibilities in our community and some of these responsibilities are more demanding or require special qualifications or talent.  But, the greater the responsibility towards a greater number of people, the greater our ability and qualifications, the greater is the demand to serve the needs of one’s community.  Maybe a political leader needs a driver for his car, or to go from A to B by plane or helicopter.  But these should be seen, not as “perks” to shore up his “dignity”, but as necessary for him to carry out more effectively his mission of service to his people.  And the same is to be said pari passu for a bishop, a priest or the father and mother of a family.

Today’s Gospel, addressed to all of us, calls for integrity and honesty, where there is no pulling of rank, no demand for respect or privilege or a hearing, no double standards but a deep sense of equality and mutual respect, a desire to serve, to share what we have and are for the benefit all.

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