Sunday of Week 31 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Malachi 1:14 – 2:2,8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13; Matthew 23:1-12

We are coming very to 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.  Although 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 turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction…so I make you despised and humbled before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.

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:

I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God! (Acts 5:38-39)

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. First, 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.

The attitude of “Do as I say; not as I do” is something all authority figures, be they parents or priests, politicians or policemen, can sometimes find themselves having in practice. We sometimes tell the young or those ‘under’ us not to do something “because I am telling you” like that in itself is 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.  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.

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 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.

And third, 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.  In some cases, large sums of money were offered to acquire these things.

Only one Lord
The point Jesus makes is that only God himself, as the source of all life, has the right to titles of Lordship or authority. And, 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 in the media.
  • 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 I am ‘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 nurse tenderly caring for her own children…

    And, they were ready not only to hand on the Gospel (that is not so difficult), but their “own selves”.  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 a 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 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.

    It is similar 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.

    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.

    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 their ‘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 or her car, or to go from A to B by plane or helicopter. But these should be seen, not as “perks” to shore up one’s “dignity”, but as necessary means to carry out more effectively the leader’s mission of service to the people.  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 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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