Year A: Thirty-First Sunday Ordinary Time

They preach but they do not practice.

Matthew 23: 1-12

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. As a faithful disciple of Jesus, what do think you should do when you see church authority being abused? What about as a faithful citizen when seeing civil authority abused?
  2. How have you personally reacted to the abuse of legitimate authority? Were you able to react in a way that neither dismisses legitimate authority nor allows legitimate authority to mislead you? Explain
  3. In Gospels Jesus is critical of the mind set of; “polishing the outside of the cup”, of loving ceremony and show but neglecting the hard work of inner change” Where do you struggle most with inner change?

Biblical Context

Matthew 23: 1-12
Sr Mary McGlone CSJ

When Jesus talked about morality, he didn’t mince words. One word that could summarize his teaching on the moral life might be “integrity.” As we search the Gospels, we have to look hard to find Jesus talking much about sexuality. When he met sinners of any ilk, he offered them forgiveness and told them to change their ways. He rarely quoted the law except to comment on its deeper meaning. (See the Sermon on the Mount) But what really seemed to get to Jesus going was hypocrisy, especially on the part of people with power or position. We might say that he critiqued them unmercifully, except that his prophetic critique was another expression of the mercy that called them to conversion. As is to be expected, the authorities he lambasted were the ones who became his bitterest enemies. Nobody likes to be unmasked as a phony.

We need to interpret the selection we hear today from Matthew in the light of its circumstances. At this point in the story we’re hearing about a growing life and death conflict. Jesus had silenced his opposition — at least in public. They resorted to plotting in private, a decision that exposed them as the fearful bullies they were.

The problem that set Jesus off on this tirade was that the scribes and Pharisees were saying the right things for the wrong purpose. They had legitimate authority, but they used it destructively. They wielded the letter of the law like a hatchet that severed the simple people’s hope for righteousness and cut their sense of being close to a loving God. In Jesus’ eyes, that took away all the legitimacy of their leadership. It didn’t destroy the teaching they quoted, only their authority to represent it.

It’s easy to imagine that Jesus’ tirade had been building up for a long time. He had watched as the self-proclaimed orthodox orated, caring far more about their precision and eloquence than about the needs of those whom they addressed. He had seen them parade in their oh-so-obvious religious garb, focusing public attention on their fine facade, while their hearts were hidden — perhaps even from themselves. They might have spoken God’s word accurately, but they perverted it in their attitudes and actions.

Jesus expressed his own theology clearly. “Call no one on earth your Father, you have but one Father in heaven.” And what was God, his Father, like? As the representative, the revelation of God’s greatness, Jesus taught “the greatest among you must be your servant.” Jesus did not call himself God, but he taught that greatness expresses itself in humble service, a lifestyle he modeled.

When he preached and even more when he interacted with people, Jesus presented a model of God like that found in Isaiah 49 where God is described as even more loving than a nursing mother. In verse 16, God says: “See, on the palms of my hands I have engraved you.” That engraving was the mark of slaves whose master’s name was tattooed or scarred onto their hands.

That shows how far God goes in dedication to humanity. The God Jesus reveals is great enough to be able to give everything. Anyone who wants to be God-like must start with integrity and humble service.

The Rightful use of Power

By Ted Wolgamot

“I believe the root of all evil is the abuse of power.” This statement by writer Patricia Cornwell is strongly reflected in today’s Gospel.

Power, and how it is abused, is a primary scriptural story line found in nearly every biblical account from the garden of Eden to the Egyptian pharaohs and the Israelite kings, continuing with the infamous Pontius Pilate, and ending only with the sweeping condemnation found in the Book of Revelation.

The stories of power, and its misuse, are legion and reach into every dimension of life including the workplace, politics, church, marriage, relationships and even parenting.

In today’s Gospel, the misuse of power is central to Jesus’ teaching where he speaks forcefully about the good use of power as compared to its opposite.

Good power, Jesus passionately argues, embraces a selfless, benevolent dimension. It involves the sharing of burdens, not the imposition of millstones around the necks of others.

Admittedly, this argument of Jesus requires a substantial upgrade in human consciousness. The opposite is reveling in our vanity and greed, seeking vengeance and domination, desperately advancing ourselves to suppress others.

Notice, for example, the contrast that Jesus emphasizes between the bad use of power and the good: “Do whatever the scribes and Pharisees teach you … but do not do what they do.” Why? “For they preach but they do not practice. … All their works are performed to be seen.”

In contrast to this misuse of power, Jesus offers an opposing truth: “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

This teaching represents the heart of the ethics that must belong to the new faith community that Jesus is founding — as it must be in our faith community now some 2,000 years old. Regarding the rightful use of power, four major themes are implied in Jesus’ teaching:

Walk the walk. Don’t just talk the talk. Central to this teaching is the connection that must exist between word and deed. We are what we do, not what we say.
Your use of power is always directed to love towards others. The law of love involves not preaching or teaching, so much as doing. Action is what makes the difference.
Piety is an internal affair of the heart. It is not about impressing people or looking for ways to be honored and glorified.
We are all called to a life of holiness, not only those in leadership positions. It is not just the “job” of priests, ministers, religious leaders to be holy. The call from Jesus to live a new kind of life extends to everyone.

The good use of power involves developing a new kind of language, a new set of words: The greatest will be servants and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. This is the kind of language that Jesus promotes in today’s Gospel — the language that protects children, the poor, the hungry, the dismissed, the irrelevant, the “less-thans.” It’s the kind of language that moves us as a people from violence to nonviolence, from imperial power to relational power, from domination to transformation.

The ultimate result of this kind of language will then become a primary way of living lives of kindness. And, as Mark Twain reminds us: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Optional reflection: use both, either, or the second one as a closing prayer.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Were I to leave this earth today, and were you to ask me for a final word about what our Ideal is, I would have to say, certain that it would be understood in its deepest sense: “Be a family.”

Are some among you suffering from spiritual or moral trials? Be understanding to them, as a mother would, and even more. Enlighten them through your words and through your example. Do not allow them to lack the warmth of a family, but rather increase it.

Are any among you in physical pain? May they be our preferred brothers and sisters. Suffer with them. Try to understand their pain completely. Share with them the fruits of your apostolic activities so that they know that, more than anyone else, they have contributed to them.

Are any among you approaching their final moments of life? Imagine you are in their place, and do for them what you would want done for yourself, until their very last breath.

Are any of you rejoicing because of a success, or for any other reason? Rejoice with them, that their consolation may not fade and their hearts not close, so that their joy may belong to everyone.

Are some moving to another place? Do not let them leave without filling their hearts with a single inheritance: the sense of a family, so that they may take it with them wherever they go.

Never place any kind of activity, whether spiritual or apostolic, before the spirit of being a family with the brothers or sisters with whom you are living.

Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings
Chiara Lubich (1920–2008), an internationally known religious leader and writer, was the founder of the Focolare, a movement that includes people of all ages, races, and vocations who promote unity, reconciliation, and the spirit of love.