Nov 4, 2017

31st Sunday - "Practice what you preach"



"All their works are performed to be seen . . .
The greatest among you must be your servant"

Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9,
Matthew 23:1-12


I distinctly remember the day after my priestly ordination being asked by my brothers and sister, “Does this mean we have to call you ‘Father’ now?” I jokingly turned to them and said, “Of course!”  Well, that hasn’t come to pass and to family at least you are who you are, regardless of the position you hold.

Yet, in light of today’s Gospel in which Jesus warns about too much emphasis on titles of honor such as “Rabbi,” “Father,” and “Master” the question of my family may not be so off the mark.  They quickly reminded me that despite being called to the priesthood, I was still the same guy.  Not a bad lesson in humility for any of us. Titles don’t give automatic super human qualities.  In fact, they may often expose more of our flaws. 

So this weekend we see Jesus at it again with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of his time. If it isn’t the Roman taxes and who gets what portion, God or Caesar, or the question about which commandment is greatest, now it’s a question about authority and their personal hypocrisy as Jesus challenges the leaders on every front.  Their deception and ill intent towards him was clear and Our Lord wastes no time in confronting them with the truth. It’s no wonder they were out to get him. 

But, it’s also good to know that not all these leaders were corrupt.  The people generally did respect them and their position was a great help to the general population, especially in Jerusalem, about staying on the mark in regards to the Sacred Law, albeit in overly burdensome ways. 

So, what we see today and in similar confrontations with Jesus and the Pharisees is also a reflection of the Church of Matthew’s time.  For as the early Jews for Jesus communities began to form after the Pentecost event, they met with increasing hostility and suspicion from Jewish authorities especially in regards to Temple worship.

So, Matthew presents these scenes to us between Jesus and the Pharisees as both an historical event and a like experience of the early Christians. He uses these examples in order to confront the Jewish authorities of his own time about 40 years after the Pentecost moment. Still, there is no doubt that Jesus poured salt into the prideful wound of the leaders of his time and their resentment led eventually to his arrest and death. 

Today’s Gospel may somewhat confuse us on one level.  Jesus tells the crowds to “. . . do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you . . .”for these men represent the authority of Moses.  Yet he rightly adds: “. . . do not follow their example.”  It was their outward show of ostentatious behavior, “they preach but do not practice . . . widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels . . . love places of honor . . .”  which was done by the Pharisees not to encourage religious observance but to draw attention only to themselves and ultimately away from God.  So Jesus warns the crowd to respect their position but do not follow their example which was a bold accusation to make considering their influence over the people and collusion with Roman authorities. It was that blatant, arrogant sin of hypocrisy that Jesus seemed to rail against more than any other.  

Jesus goes on to warn the crowds about their lust for prestige, honor and recognition, and their love for “places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,” and public shows of respect in the “marketplace” and attractive titles of superiority.  They must have been quite the “prima donnas” as the saying goes.  In a sickening display of ego centered behavior their empty personal examples incur our Lord’s courageous warning to the people to reject what they see.  These are false leaders, not authentic, we might say. In doing all of this, Matthew in his Gospel compares the leadership of his own converts with that of the general Jewish community leadership around him. 

In today’s first reading from the prophet Malachi we hear a similar warning about the Jewish authority and the need for right example: “You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction . . .” I think those of us entrusted with the responsibility of leading Christian community, aka our parishes and its pastors to name an obvious example, myself among them of course, and our Bishops in their Dioceses, will be held to a certain standard of judgment when the Lord calls us home.  Don’t lead people astray, preach and practice the truth, give honest and good example to those you lead!  Ouch, but right on course.

Still, history has taught over centuries of human leadership that we have seen power seriously abused:  tyrants, dictators, emperors, military leaders and even some Popes, have all provided plenty of examples of abusive power.  Yet, despite that we have also seen saintly and virtuous examples from some of the same, though it often seems those are sadly not the majority.  So, Jesus’ warning today is not so much about titles of honor as much as it is about the abuse of power. 

So, what we hear about authentic leadership in the readings today may cause us to deflect it away from ourselves to our politicians and our Church leaders of our time.  Yet, Jesus reveals to us by pointing out bad leadership to remind us how we all must be as his disciples, regardless of our positions.  The Gospel is about personal conversion ot the form of Christ Jesus and so we must follow the example of the only one who is truly authentic and truly the Holy One – Christ himself who not only told us but showed us. 

He concludes the Gospel today by saying: “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  As leaders in our own particular way, whether those formally given positions of authority or responsibility over others or not, is that we are all called to live a life of loving service after his example.  The greatest leaders are the greatest selfless servants and Jesus himself is the purest example of what that means for us all. 

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Almighty and merciful God, 
by whose gift your faithful offer you
right and praiseworthy service, grant
that we may hasten without stumbling
to receive the things your have promised. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 
Amen. 

(Opening Collect of Mass)