The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” (Matthew 23:2-3)*_
Last Sunday, a lawyer approached Jesus to test Him by asking which commandment is the greatest. At that time, there were more than six hundred commandments in the Jewish law, some of which were created by religious leaders with the sole intention of making life difficult for the people. Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel passage: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they will not move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4).
The sad part was that while the scribes and Pharisees were busy multiplying the commandments, they never practised them, but they made the people believe they were holier-than-thou. Jesus could see through their hypocrisy. He knew that beyond the wearing of broad phylacteries, standing to pray in public places, and salutations in the market were empty hearts – far from God and lacking in love, which is the most important commandment of all. There are so many lessons contained in today’s readings.
*1. Repent From Hypocrisy: Actions Speak Louder than Words*
A few years ago, a young man ran up to meet me after Mass. I had just finished celebrating Mass and was still in the sacristy getting ready for the next Mass. The young man needed financial help. He was still narrating his story before I cut him short. I told him I was already running late for the next Mass and that he should get in touch with the members of the St. Vincent De Paul Society. The young man said: “If you cannot help me, why are you preaching that we should love our neighbours as ourselves?” I became speechless. I never saw this man in that parish again, but he had passed a strong message. For the first time, I realised I was no different from the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus condemned with strong words.
It is easy to preach but very difficult to walk the talk. Last Sunday, I titled my reflection: “Let the poor breathe.” While preparing for today’s reflection, I asked myself some critical questions: Did I let the poor breathe throughout last week? How many poor people did I reach out to? How many widows or orphans did I help? Talk is cheap; actions make all the difference. Now I realise why St. Paul said: “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
If I preach eloquent sermons about love, but I do not practice it, I am just a noisy gong. St. James would say: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17). When we have no love in our hearts, our preaching fails to find application in our daily lives and, as such, becomes useless.
As much as we must point fingers in preaching, we must endeavour to look inward. Otherwise, the logs in my eyes would not allow me to remove the specks in others’ eyes. Perhaps this is the reason why our Nigerian society today is full of preachers, yet we never cease to hear of all kinds of atrocities. In today’s first reading, Malachi warns us, the priests. If our lives do not glorify God, we attract curses upon ourselves.
If I listen to the confessions of others and absolve them in the name of Christ, I must also examine my conscience and go for confession. Otherwise, I would be among those whom Jesus would say these words to on the last day: “Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity! There you will weep and gnash your teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you thrust out.” (Luke 13:27-30).
*2. If I Fail to Practice What I Preach, Do Not Copy Me.*
Jesus said: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, practice whatever they tell you but not what they do…” Even though Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, He does not condemn the priesthood of Moses entirely. Jesus wants us to avoid the error of throwing out the baby with the bath water. In other words, Jesus is saying: “Do not leave the church because of a bad priest. Do not stop attending Mass because you know the evil deeds of a bishop, religious, catechist, church minister, leader of pious society or group, etc.”
Whether we like it or not, we will encounter bad shepherds; there will be a lot of scandals. However, if we decide to walk away from God because of the human errors of His ministers, we would be shooting ourselves in the leg. You may ask: “Why does God allow sinners (imperfect men and women) to be His ministers? How come some of them go about disgracing the name of Christ with reckless abandon?”
It would have been nice that all those wearing white cassocks also had hearts as white as their cassocks. However, St. Paul says: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
To harvest a tuber of yam, you have to dig the ground and uproot the yam. The newly harvested yam tuber always looks dirty, but its dirtiness will not stop you from eating it. All you have to do is to wash the yam. Jesus wants us to wash the dirt (sieve out the bad behaviours) of our religious leaders and focus on observing the truth contained in the word of God which they preach.
*3. Anyone Who Exalts Himself Will Be Humbled*
One of the factors responsible for the fall of many church leaders is pride – excessive pride, the feeling that having received ordination (anointing), one has become greater than all other men. The battle against sin is a life-long struggle. Once we boast of our holiness, we take the glory meant for God and ascribe it to ourselves. As the saying goes, “Pride goes before a fall.” The book of Revelations (20:10) hints that the devil, once an angel of God, fell from glory due to pride. The devil forgot that without God, he is nothing, and he sought to challenge God’s supremacy.
Do you notice how some “Men of God” become popular for a while, only for them to fade into oblivion? Have you noticed the pattern of rising, boasting, and then falling? When I start to assume I am a god, God will bring me down. Instead of waiting to be humiliated, would it not be better to humble myself first? This is what Jesus was teaching us in today’s Gospel passage when he said: “You must not allow anyone to call you Rabbi, since you have only one master and you are all brothers.”
We must understand that Jesus is not against the use of titles. Rather, He is against pride. There is nothing wrong with addressing a priest as “Reverend Father.” When you address me as “Father,” it should give me a sense of responsibility rather than make my head swell. I should be willing to serve you rather than maltreat or insult you. If hearing the name “Father” makes me feel bigger than you, I have become proud. No matter how holy, knowledgeable, or talented I may be, I am going down.
*4. The Man of God Should Never Be Burden to the People*
In today’s second reading, we hear St. Paul saying: “For you remember our labour and toil, brethren; we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you, while we preached to you the gospel of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:9). St. Paul presents himself as an example not just to the Church in Thessalonica but to all religious leaders. In the name of harvest, tithes, bazaar, donation, building collection, etc., there is the possibility of the priest tasking the people beyond their means, thereby becoming a burden to them. Once again, this calls for an examination of conscience on our part.
A typical example is what happens during funerals. While there are families who are well-to-do (and like to show off wealth during such occasions), there are some families that cannot meet the basic requirements. Asking the children to pay all the levies owed by their deceased parents or doing fund-raising during funerals should be discouraged. I must ask myself: “If I am in the shoes of my parishioners, how would I feel if so and so is done to me?”
Let us pray: Almighty, ever-living God, without your grace, I am nothing. Teach me to be humble always and never look down on others. Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
Bible Study: Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10, Ps. 131, 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13, Matthew 23:1-12).*
@Rev. Fr. Evaristus E. Abu