31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – 5th November 2017

A Challenge

First Reading

Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10

I am a great king, says the Lord of Hosts, and my name is feared throughout the nations. And now, priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, if you do not find it in your heart to glorify my name, says the Lord of Hosts, I will send the curse on you and curse your very blessing. But you, you have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your teaching. You have destroyed the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of Hosts. And so I in my turn have made you contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people in repayment for the way you have not kept to my paths but have shown partiality in your administration.

Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why, then, do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?

Second Reading

1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13

Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, we felt so devoted and protective towards you, and had come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News but our whole lives as well. Let me remind you, brothers, how hard we used to work, slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one of you while we were proclaiming God’s Good News to you.

Another reason why we constantly thank God for you is that as soon as you heard the message that we brought you as God’s message, you accepted it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking; and it is still a living power among you who believe it.

Gospel Reading

Matthew 23:1-12

Addressing the people and his disciples Jesus said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.

‘You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one master, and you are all brothers. You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’

Scripture readings – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com

REFLECTION

“A Challenge”

by Fr Ray McIntyre

Today’s Gospel passage highlights the difference between true Religion and false piety by talking about the religious leaders of the Jews at the time of Jesus. The Pharasees, taken as a group, were neither good nor holy. Preoccupied with the exterior trappings of religion, inside they were empty and hollow. They dressed and acted in such a way as to draw attention to themselves. Their long prayers were merely an outward show because they neglected the important matters of Faith, Justice and Mercy. While placing harsh burdens and prohibitions on the Jewish people, these burdens had little to do with God’s Law.

The Gospel paints an unflattering picture of the Pharisees. They are criticised mainly because they failed to practice what they preached. Few of us can truthfully say that our deeds always match our words. In fact,most of us are pretty good at presenting one face for the public and displaying a different one to our family and friends. But it is clear that Jesus wanted his followers to avoid the obvious mistakes of the Pharisees. What Jesus wished is summed up in these words of today’s Gospel:

Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and
Anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.

Humility is to be a key virtue for a follower of Jesus.

Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope in1958 becoming Pope John 23rd. He described how he felt making his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s square. He said: I remembered Jesus’s warning – learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. He described being dazzled by TV Lights and how he could see nothing but a hugh mass of people. He said: I blessed Rome and the world as though I were a blind man and as I came away I thought of all the attention that would be focussed on me from now on. I said to myself.

If you don’t remain a disciple of the gentle and humble master you’ll understand nothing. Indeed John 23rd. Did go on to adopt a model of leadership of  the Church that did reflect the compassionate leadership of Christ.

The Gospel is a challenge to all Christians about the quality of their worship and the witness of their Faith. A particular focus are those whose role it is to lead, to keep a vision of God’s Kingdom alive today, to proclaim His goodness and His commandments. Such people often fail to practise what they preach and this failure weakens the impact of the message. However, human failure does not invalidate the truth or power of the Gospel. In all circumstances of life we lead by example and that is what will bring others to Christ.

LECTIO DIVINA

by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB

Introduction to Lectio Divine

With unaccustomed harshness Jesus spoke to the most important people of his time, the Pharisees. It was risky for him to speak like that in public to people who were considered not just good people, but also excellent guides. His words contain a double lesson for us.  Even if they strike us as harsh and radical, they have the advantage of drawing us closer to what Jesus wanted – seeking the kingdom of God above everything else – and making clear to us what Jesus detested most, pretence and deception in the life of the believer. His words are a severe warning to people like us, who would like to be seen as good.

In the most severe attack that Jesus could possibly have pronounced against the religious authorities of his time, the evangelist puts together, very successfully, a devastating criticism of hypocrisy. It is an attitude that good people everywhere frequently fall into without realizing it. Jesus is not naive.  He criticizes them for not doing what they say, but he does not take away their authority and leave them with an excuse for not practising what they preach. They like to be seen as good.  They dress in fine robes and go in search of honours, seeking recognition in public. The Christian community must avoid appearances, but without ceasing to be good. We are all brothers but there is only one Father. We are all disciples but there is only one Master. In the Christian community all are brothers and all are equal. Anyone who wants to be considered great must become the servant of all. We do not need great imagination to see ourselves on trial, if not actually condemned, by the words of Jesus. Nowadays, we are the Pharisees.

Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

Jesus had been involved in serious argument with the leaders of the Jews and had reduced them to silence (Mt 22, 15-46). Now he turns his attention to the people and the disciples. His discourse lasts a full chapter, the whole of Chapter 23.  In it Jesus displays unexpectedly harsh invective against the Pharisees. It is likely that Mathew gathered here various sayings of Jesus to explain the conflict between the early Christian community and the Jews, who were mainly Pharisees.  The evangelist puts on the lips of Jesus the judgement merited by Israel.

Our text is in two parts, marked by the change of pronouns: ‘they’ in verses 1-7; ‘you’ in verses 8 -11. It ends with a short well-known sentence (23, 12) of a general nature which is the key to interpreting the whole paragraph. The first part is a not very flattering description of the country’s leaders. Jesus recognises their authority as they sit on the chair of Moses. He acknowledges their precise legal interpretation – “Do what they tell you” – but he points out their radical inconsistency – “they do not practise what they preach” – and they do everything to draw attention to themselves. Precisely because they are legitimate teachers, their way of life condemns them and they have no appeal: they do not live up to what they teach and they teach what is to their own advantage.

When Jesus is speaking to the people and his disciples, it is significant that he does not refer to the theme of their teaching on the law and its fulfilment. Jesus wants the members of the Christian community to live as brothers and sisters, children of God and disciples of Christ. In his community, the one who is first must serve.  Being the servant of all is the sure way to glory.

Meditate: apply what the text says to life

Jesus is speaking to the people who are listening and to his disciples.  He criticizes the religious authorities of his time.  The chair of Moses, the place where the law of God is to be taught, is occupied by people who do not practise what they preach, and impose on others norms that they themselves do not follow. Jesus does not deny the authority with which they explain God’s will to the people, but insists that they themselves ought to do what they expect others to do. He points out their inconsistency, the double game they are playing.  They know well what God commands, but act as if these commandments were meant only for others. They think that because they are masters of the law, they do not have to be servants of God.

Jesus does not tolerate a situation where the very people who know the law best are the worst at observing it. He does not understand how the people who can explain to others what God wants of them, can excuse themselves, thinking that God does not expect it of them, or at least not now. He denounces this hypocrisy and adds another denunciation no less severe: those who think they are good often tend to show off.  The effort they make to avoid obeying the law is aimed at making it appear that they are obedient. They are not good on the inside, in their hearts and in their intentions, but they appear good in public. What upset Jesus most was that they used their practice of the law to make themselves appear good before the people. They used their life of faith to carve out a career for themselves.

It would be a mistake to think that it was only the leaders of Jesus’ time who were hypocrites, or to identify the hypocrites of today with those who are our superiors or seem better than us.  Jesus spoke to the people and the disciples to warn them against the attitude of the Pharisees, not against the Pharisees themselves. The Pharisees were genuinely religious people, good people who lived their faith every day, sincerely and completely. If there were any excesses, they were done out of good will.

But, Jesus says, this is not enough! And he is saying it to all of us today; to be good it is not enough to desire it, or to say it, or to make resolutions, or to show it or prove it.   We have to begin to practise what we want to become, and we do not have to worry about succeeding in everything. Jesus is not satisfied if his followers appear good unless they are good or at least trying to be good.  His disciples must do what they know to be the will of God, without putting on a show in the hope of being seen by others.

Obeying God, while at the same time looking for the esteem or admiration of others, shows a lack of respect for God.  If we seek to profit from our obedience we are not worthy of God.  If someone gets a salary he is not entitled to, he is not a good servant.  To take advantage of God and our worship of God in the hope of receiving praise and congratulations, is hypocrisy.  If we do not live the faith we preach, it would be better to stay silent.  But is that not precisely the example we Christians give to society? And we do it with enviable perseverance!  We tell others what they should be,   but we do not give them the chance to tell us how they would like us to be, or what they expect of us as Christians.

If we do not allow others to tell us how they see us, at least let us permit Jesus to remind us what he wants us to be. Jesus wants his disciples always united. There should be no sentiments of superiority, no seeking special honours, and no thinking ourselves better than others. This is not just because we are all equal, but because we are all, in his eyes and in his heart, his disciples and children of the Father. What matters is not what we want to be, but how God sees us.

There is only one master and, therefore, whoever lives close to him will always be, at best, an apprentice and a disciple. The first thing Jesus teaches his disciples is that they are all brothers, all disciples of the same master, learning the same doctrine.  It is not the charter of human rights that makes us all equal, with identical privileges and the same responsibility.  Our equality as Christians is based on our common discipleship of Christ and the universal fatherhood of God.

It should not surprise us that, in a world which makes ever more insistent demands for equality, and where people dream of universal brotherhood, we still remain very far from achieving those goals. A society which does not learn from Jesus cannot become truly fraternal. A world which does not consider God as Father will not succeed in bringing about reconciliation among people.  The further we are removed from the teaching of Jesus, the less likely we are to consider others as our brothers and sisters, and the more likely we are to behave irresponsibly towards them.  His teaching is gradually being overlooked in our world, and consequently we do not see our neighbours as brothers and sisters, nor do we see ourselves as children of God. Where the Father is acknowledged and loved, the children feel loved and grateful. That is the difference between the teaching of Jesus and that of any other authority, no matter how good or how legitimate it may be. Anyone who has Jesus as sole teacher, and who lives only by his teaching, will discover that God has many children and each one has many brothers and sisters, fellow disciples of Jesus.

One good way, therefore, to make this world more human and more fraternal, is to become authentic disciples of Christ.  Even though we are seen as good people – and indeed we are not too bad! – we are missing the most important thing, which is to take Jesus seriously as our teacher and God as our Father.

If we want to escape the criticism of Jesus, we should not persist in trying to appear good, and we should not think that we know all we ought to do and what we should impose on others.  Instead, we should realize that we are children of God and disciples of Jesus. It is the teaching of Jesus that in God’s house greatness is accorded to those who serve others, not to those who teach. Those who learn from Jesus and have God as their Father are people who serve their neighbour as brothers and sisters, who do not seek honours or privileges for themselves, who set about doing whatever has to be done to meet the needs of others, who hide the good they do,  and are not afraid to let the wrong they do be seen.

Jesus spares his disciples the shame attached to not being so good, in the same way that he has forbidden them to be proud when they think they are good.   But he demands their attention and obedience. Christians cannot continue to call themselves good, for they know that God alone is good.  If we seek honours and privileges, when we know that the only thing necessary is God and his kingdom, then we have lost our way and are wasting our lives.

PRAYER

God of power and mercy,
by whose grace your people give you praise and worthy service,
save us from faltering
on our way to the joys you 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.

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AChallenge