(For Year A apart from 2014)
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary time – 1/A
Gospel reading: Matthew 23:1-12
vs.1 Addressing the people and his disciples, Jesus said,
vs.2 “The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses.
vs.3 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 practice what they preach.
vs.4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!
vs.5 Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels,
vs.6 like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues,
vs.7 being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.
vs.8 You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers.
vs.9 You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven.
vs.10 Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ.
vs.11 The greatest among you must be your servant.
vs.12 Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We have three commentators available from whom you may wish to choose .
Click on the name of the commentator required.
Michel DeVerteuil: a Trinidadian Holy Ghost Priest, director of the Centre of Biblical renewal
Thomas O’Loughlin: Professor of Historical theology, University of Wales, Lampitor
Jack Mc Ardle: a member of the SSCC Congregation, writer and popular retreat giver
Lectio Divina with the Sunday Gospels
Today’s gospel passage contains several different teachings, each of them very deep and relevant to us today, and each expressed in its own imaginative language. Since they are all so special it might be better to focus on each one individually although we may come to see a common thread running through them all.
Another point to note is that the teachings are addressed to two different groups:
- the “scribes and Pharisees” on the one hand,
- the “people and his disciples” on the other.
In fact the focus shifts so that it is now one group that is being addressed and now the other. In our meditation we need to be conscious of the group being addressed and of how we identify with each.
• The Pharisees are those in authority who adopt false values. A good meditation on them will avoid two errors – self-righteousness on the one hand, playing down the evil of what they do, on the other. We avoid self-righteousness by recognising something of ourselves in them (even if in a reduced way); we feel the evil of their ways by entering into Jesus’ indignation.
• The “people” are us when we let ourselves be oppressed by others and some Jesus helps us to discover our freedom and dignity.
In either case we celebrate Jesus, the great teacher and leader:
- he is fearless in confronting the scribes and Pharisees, reminding us of times when we have been challenged by people, events or institutions – perhaps a Biblical word;
- he believes in the common people and is deeply respectful of them – a wonderful model for community leaders, catechists and spiritual guides. A model too for the Church community in our time.
Verses 1 to 3 are addressed to the common people. Jesus reassures them – they must not let themselves be awed by those in authority who do not practice the noble things they proclaim.
We remember times when we allowed ourselves to be overawed by others because:
- they were better educated,
- they belonged to a higher social class, to an ethnic group, culture or religion with a higher status,
- they were more “respectable” in the eyes of our Church community, neighbourhood, society.
Then some Jesus came into our lives (as individuals, Church community or culture) and freed us from this dependency. We saw that those we had placed on a pedestal were flawed like all human beings and we felt liberated.
Verses 4 to 7 are addressed to those in authority.
Verse 4 speaks of their tendency to hand down laws without compassion. We think of
- church leaders unwilling to spend time counselling pregnant girls but condemning them when they have an abortion,
- education (including religious education) as handing down information rather than consciousness raising.
Verses 5 to 7 speak of the Pharisees’ desire for external signs of honour. “External signs” for us will include the different ways (including subconscious ones) in which we look for approval from our peers or from the wider community. This is a defect we can observe in the Church as well.
We read these verses from two points of view:
- remembering moments of grace when we or our community became conscious of these faults in ourselves,
- celebrating Jesus people who brought us to this consciousness. We think of the great men and women, in
our time and in history, who have challenged the structures of our organisation – including the church.
Verses 8 to 10 return to the common folk, reminding them of their right to be guided by conscience. This passage has been crucially important for the development of our church’s wonderful teaching on the primacy of the individual conscience.
We celebrate the great theologians who have courageously upheld this teaching in the face of authoritarian tendencies in the Church, e.g. Cardinal Newman, Bernard Haering, Hans Kung. They have been Jesus for our time.
Verses 11 and 12 (returning to those in authority) can stand on their own but we can also read them in the light of the previous teachings;
- vs. 11 is a commandment, but we must avoid all moralising and read it as a story of grace – Jesus bringing good news. In Jesus we celebrate “great people” – teachers, leaders, spiritual guides – who taught us by word and example to reject the arrogance of authority figures (the “Scribes and Pharisees” of our community) and who put themselves at the service of all;
- vs. 12 is a factual observation which we are invited to recognise from our experience. It raises two possibilities:
* very gifted people “exalted themselves” and ended up “humbled” – looked down on by those who formerly admired them. Here again we must be careful to avoid self-righteousness. A sign that we have done so is that we feel very great sadness at the memory. What a pity!
* truly great people “humbled themselves” and were “exalted”, they gave themselves in humble service and are now widely admired. Some have made the passage on the world stage, e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day; others in the context of our daily lives, e.g. parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbours.
We must not move too quickly to the second stage but spend time remembering (celebrating) the years of frustration. Our overall response must be from the heart – what a privilege to have known people like that!
The saying is a powerful reminder of how life brings surprises; it invites us to celebrate the Jesus who prepared us for this. It is also a call to the Church to speak its prophetic word, warning our culture of how false its values are.
“A seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and his life has surprisingly greater power, though formally disenfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.” President Havel of Czechoslovakia, speaking when he was living under the communist regime.
Lord, we thank you for those who live under tyrannical regimes
and keep up the spirits of fellow citizens, telling them, like Jesus,
that they have to obey those who occupy the chair of authority,
and do what they say,
but they must be guided by their own values,
and not the values of those who preach lofty principles and do not practice them.
Lord, we who hold positions of authority in the Church
wear garments that attract attention;
we are always given places of honour at banquets
and front seats in places of worship;
people often greet us obsequiously in market places
and give us titles of honour.
Preserve us, Lord, from setting store on all these things;
remind us that the greatest thing in our lives
is to be at the service of your people.
“I shall not fear anyone on earth. I shall fear only God.
I shall bear ill will towards no one.
I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.” Gandhi
Lord, there are times when people in authority hold us in bondage.
We are terrified of displeasing them, whatever they say is Bible truth to us.
Then you send a Jesus person into our lives who teaches us about our own dignity
- that we have only one Master and all men and women are brothers and sisters to us;
- that we have only one Father, and he is in Heaven; only one teacher, the Christ.
Thank you, Lord.
“The important thing for a woman soldier to remember is not to show weakness.
We wouldn’t give men that satisfaction.” A woman officer in the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force
Lord, in our culture no one wants to appear weak.
We pray that in our Church communities there may be no great honour
for those who pretend to be strong when they are not,
and that those who admit to being vulnerable may be respected.
Lord, we thank you for the various Centres that have been set up in our Church
to care for unwed mothers.
They are a sign that we do not merely call for obedience to your laws
but help people to bear their burdens.
“Power comes from the people, but no sooner is that power acquired
than those who got the power begin to isolate themselves from people.” Cesar Chavez
Lord, have mercy on us who are in authority in the Church, in the State, in families.
How easy it is for us to hand down commandments,
tying up heavy burdens and laying them on the shoulders of those in our charge,
but never lifting a finger to move those burdens.
“It is when I am weak that I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
Lord, we can always recognize a moment of grace.
It is one when we realise how we had been exalting ourselves
and now feel ennobled in our lowliness.
“Our fear is that a reinforced Europe may choose for its conscience the law of the strongest,
the law of militarism, the old law of colonialism and of discrimination because of class, race
and sex.” Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women, July 1990
Lord, we pray for the followers of Jesus who are building the new Europe,
that they may consider it the highest honour in life to be servants of the oppressed;
that among them self exaltation will be held in low esteem
while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Liturgical Resources for the Year of Matthew
Introduction to the Celebration
One of the great gaps in each of our lives is between intentions and actions; we often have only the best intentions but what we actually do is a lot less wholesome. We have noble words and ignoble deeds. We make professions of faith with our lips, but not with our deeds or our wallets; we say we are willing to be disciples of the master, but we often find easier paths and other guides. We claim the enlightenment of the gospel and to be the people of love and peace, yet our behaviour often brings the very name of Christ into disrepute. It is this gap that is the focus of our thoughts and prayers in this assembly. Let us reflect now on this chasm that opens up between our public religious identity and our ways of living.
If one asks Christians, and especially clergy, whether or not the world benefits from their presence as religious people, one gets a clear affirmative: we point out that our religion is peace-making and loving, that it promotes humility and the care for the underdog, we point out our work for society in areas such as education, and for the world at large giving examples of help offered to poor countries or in the wake of disasters. Clearly, religion is a good thing!
If, on the other hand, one asks people who have no formal connection with religion whether they think that religions, or organised groups of religious people, are a good thing or not, the overwhelming answer is not one of neutrality (e.g. ‘each to their own so long as the horses are not frightened’) but one of positive fear. Religion, they say, promotes discord, its organisations promote fragmentation within society, it only gets involved in social structures so as to enforce its own practices or ideas within society, it is pompous and arrogant, and can lead to backwardness, coercion, and hatred. Religion as a private sentiment may be fine in a consumerist society (‘you want it, you can have it’); but when religion is organised, it is subversive and divisive.
2.This attack upon religion may be the major threat that faces us as Christians during the next century. Its power comes partially from the fact that one can express most conflicts across the globe in terms of religious divides; and having done so, can imagine that this distinction between conflicting groups is the cause of the conflict between the groups. However, its power as a critique of religion (and the reason I do not believe it will go away any time soon) also comes from the fact that it tunes in with a dominant theme in our culture: individualist consumerism – there should be no limits on my personal desires and any external authority regarding my choices is inherently a threat to my freedom. However, rather than tilt at such giant ideas – a policy of questionable value in the context of short homily at a Eucharist – one can note that some of the criticisms offered are strikingly similar to the criticisms of the religious establishment in today’s gospel.
But even if there were no external criticisms of religion (and the presence of such criticism should call us to self-reflection as a first reaction), we need to take stock of ourselves and see whether or not we are ‘fit for purpose’. This is even more pressing for any religious group, such as the local community assembling for the Eucharist, than for other groups which may gather for some good purpose, because of the nature of the claims we make as a group. We call ourselves ‘the people of God: we say that we are disciples of Jesus, we claim publicly to be followers of the ‘The Way: and we propose a message that we will announce to all. Making such claims means that we acknowledge that other people can have higher expectations of us and so can castigate us even more trenchantly when we fail to meet our own proclaimed standards. Sometimes church leaders claim that such an added standard is unfair, arguing that church people should not be expected to be more responsible than any other group; but such apologies are perceived as deceitful for they fly in the face of the wisdom contained in the proverb: people in glass houses should not throw stones.
4. The fact is that while we say that we are following Jesus, we continually ‘lose the plot’. It is this losing of the, plot, failing ‘to see the big picture: ‘failing to see the wood for the trees’ that is the criticism of Jesus of the religious structures of his day. ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practise and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practise:
So, since we are the people of God, how to we assess ourselves that we are living up to the claims? We need some pointed questions that can provoke our thinking.
5. Such questions really belonging to each actual group: each parish, community, group within the community, each eucharistic assembly. One way to form those questions is to note that there are three endemic fallacies that lull Christians into indolence and self-satisfaction:
First, the fact that the organisation is running smoothly indicates that it is helping people to grow as disciples. For example, the Eucharist has been celebrated at 10.30am for years and everyone who comes is happy with this, no one is complaining, and the music group always has the sheets ready and loves what they sing. Maybe the larger community’s profile has changed and no one inside this parish circle has noticed? Maybe those times or that music is very much at variance with what others can cope with or expect?
Second, the fact that we have many achievements of which we can be proud indicates that we are attentive to the voice of the Spirit. The parish may run a very successful school and put great efforts into raising money for this school, but is it putting forth a vision of Christian education or just a good consumer product? Would those who work for it be willing for it to relinquish its ability to produce students who’ can get on in the world’ if that were the price of it having a more person-centred education?
Third, the fact that there was a genuine listening and response to the call of God at one time means that we can keep repeating that activity with confidence that that is what is called for from us. Built into religions is the need for repetition: we repeat stories, we repeat rituals, and we have structures for this such as the lectionary and the liturgical year. But repetition can easily become a love of the past; how willing is the community to change in order to proclaim the Word in each new situation? As Picasso is reported to have said: ‘Tradition is about having a baby, not wearing your grandfather’s hat.’
These are, of course, big questions; and so we usually hear them asked at the big structural level: we hear them at ‘national pastoral conferences’, at ‘diocesan renewal events’, and the like. But the call of Jesus was not originally heard in such large structures: the gospel was preached in small gatherings for the eucharistic meal that probably never had more that fifty people present. So Matthew imagined that this piece of gospel would be provocative at the small level at a Sunday assembly, indeed at a much smaller gathering than most of the assemblies we now have! It is the actual eucharistic group that this gospel expects will have to come to grips with this challenge, not some greater and more remote structure.
Jack Mc Ardle
And that’s the Gospel Truth
Today’s gospel is a head-on attack on the religious leaders, who preach one thing, and practise something else. Jesus shows them up as phoneys who try to impress others by external show, while, within, they are far from being what they pretend to be.
With the growth in global communication has come the spotlight that penetrates into every corner, so that it is getting increasingly difficult to conceal, or to suppress scandals. We see that in our Tribunals of Enquiry, where pillars of society, who were telling us to tighten our belts, have been exposed as lining their pockets with millions. All of the recent dictators, who have been ousted, have been exposed as having bled the country’s economy dry, as they stashed billions in other countries. Something similar has been exposed in the church, when some of those who thumped the pulpit and told us how to live our lives, have been exposed as people who themselves were living double lives.
One day the father of a very wealthy family took his son on a trip to the country with the firm purpose of showing him just how poor people can be. They spent a couple of days and nights on the farm of what could be considered a very poor family. On their return from the trip, the father asked his son, ‘How was the trip?’ ‘It was great, dad.’ ‘Did you see how poor people can be?’ ‘Oh yeah!’, said the son. ‘So what did you learn from the trip?’
The son answered, ‘I saw that we have one dog, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden, and they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lanterns in our garden, and they have stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front yard, and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on, and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We have servants who serve us, but they serve others. We have walls around our property to protect us, but they have friends to protect them.’ With this, the boy’s father was speechless. Then his son added, ‘Thanks, dad, for showing me how poor we are.’
There is a vast difference between being wealthy and being rich. When I have genuine gratitude for what I have, I may begin discovering the richness of others.