Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachai 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13
It is always hoped that the person reading these reflections has spent the appropriate amount of time reading the Scriptures for the particular Sunday. If you have done so this week, then you will understand why one commentator on the readings has suggested that “this is a four aces Sunday for everybody who thrives on criticizing the hierarchy and clergy. Malachi lambasts corrupt priests, and Jesus is on a roll as he goes after the hypocritical religious leaders of his day (McGlone, NCR).” It would be far too easy to criticize and point out the prelates and presidents who appear to fall so miserably short of who they are called to be, who do plenty of preaching “but they do not practice” what they preach. “All their works are performed to be seen” on the pages of newspapers, and they love “their places of honor.” Yes, pointing out other people’s foibles might make us feel good about ourselves until we remember that the Gospel is designed to call us to conversion, not reinforce our self-righteousness.
Jesus’ confrontations of the Scribes and the Pharisees are not recounted on the pages of Scripture to merely humiliate the religious leaders. Rather, they are meant to illustrate the need for integrity in all those who choose to follow in Jesus footsteps. The Scribes and the Pharisees had failed to be what they were called to be, and instead of leading and helping others recognize the overwhelming love of the God they worshipped they got lost in the minutiae of the Law/Torah. Rules became, for them, more important than the people they were called to serve. They laid “heavy burdens” on other people’s backs, and they never lifted a finger to help them. “Jesus censured the scribes and Pharisees because they said all the right words while they used their position to their own advantage, wasting little concern on God’s people. They loved to expound on God’s law but were adroit at avoiding its requirements in their personal life. They could tell others what they should do, but did nothing to help them accomplish it. Displaying their religious regalia and making public displays of their piety, they had fallen into a trap of seeking attention and admiration rather than cultivating a relationship with God (McGlone, NCR).”
The teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees was empty, without weight, because they did not practice what they preached. That is why Jesus recommended to his listeners “do what they tell you,” but “do not follow their example.” The challenge to Jesus’ listeners was not to sharpen their talent of “pointing out the speck” in other people’s eyes. Rather, Jesus’ followers were meant to recognize the “plank” in their own eyes, they were meant to humbly recognize their own frailty, their own sinfulness and brokenness, and that awareness was meant to draw them towards helping and serving others. The problem with so many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day was that they were busy “widening their phylacteries” and grabbing attention. They loved “places of honor” and were inflated with a sense of their own self-importance. They forgot that their role was to draw others to God, not to draw a crowd.
Later in chapter 23 Jesus levels some of the harshest criticism in the gospels against the religious leaders of his day who are so adept at paying tithes but who “have neglected the weightier things” like “judgment and mercy and fidelity.” They are nothing but “blind guides,” who are “like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth… On the outside [they] appear righteous, but inside [they] are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing (Matt 23:27-28).” Jesus does not mince words.
It is important for Jesus that his followers recognize the need for integrity, for being what they are called to be, champions of the greatest commandment, loving God and loving neighbor. Nothing should threaten that Christian responsibility. No man-made rules or regulations, no ritual demands or worldly temptations, are ever meant to stand in the way of our becoming the loving people God has called us to be. The Scribes and the Pharisees should have known that; it appears they forgot. Jesus reminds all of us today who we are called to be before he shifts his focus in the gospel to thoughts about the Kingdom. Let us make sure we never forget who we are as Christians, and let us rise to the challenge of being the loving people Jesus so often speaks about, remembering that the best of homilies is the one not spoken with our lips, but the one proclaimed by our lives.