Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Then 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 exalted.’
Members remain standing while the Gospel is read. After the Gospel is read, members kiss the Gospel and are seated. After an appropriate period of reflection, members are invited to share their own lights from the Holy Spirit in relation to this Gospel passage. The secretary synthesizes reflections into a brief summary for the team.
(30 minutes) See monthly schedule
The Better Part
Consider privately reflecting on the corresponding chapter from The Better Part by Fr. John Bartunek, LC, ThD during the week.
Unit #71 – “Learning from the Pharisees” – Matthew 23:1-12
“The man who loves God thinks it enough to please him whom he loves, for no greater reward can be sought than that love itself.” Pope St Leo the Great
Christ as Lord
St Matthew has just described the last encounter between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, the scribes and Pharisees. During a long series of encounters in which they sought to trick Jesus, humiliate and discredit him, Jesus patiently but firmly parried their every blow and repeatedly directed their attention to the saving truth about himself, and the frightening truth about themselves. They continually refused to accept the Lord, until finally Jesus was forced to silence his enemies by posing them a question in his turn, one that left them speechless and confused. Now, as they go off to fume and concoct other plans, he turns to those who had been watching and listening to this verbal bout. They have long looked up to their religious leaders, but Jesus now has to definitively repeal those leaders’ credentials, so that his followers can be free to embrace his doctrine fully. The Lord’s insatiable desire to teach them the way of salvation overflows in a lesson that he longs for us all to learn, a lesson that the scribes and Pharisees rejected – the lesson of humility.
The contrast between the picture Jesus paints of the scribes and Pharisees and his own style of life highlights what kind of a king he really is. These men did things out of love for themselves, to elevate themselves, to aggrandize themselves. Their leadership consisted in crushing those beneath them, intimidating them or devouring them into acknowledging the pharisaical greatness. Jesus’ whole public ministry demonstrates the exact opposite tack. He sought only to elevate those around him. His teaching and his miracles were always aimed at the good of those around him. He is the Lord of self-forgetful love, dethroning the idol of self-indulgent hypocrisy.
Christ as Teacher
The Pharisees were the self-proclaimed elite of Palestine, the perfect ones, the ones who dedicated themselves to the fulfillment of every detail of the Jewish law, while the common people only fulfilled the broad precepts. They thought themselves superior, and gloried in it, and used it to humiliate others and thus perpetuate their superiority. Theirs was an extreme case of arrogance and hypocrisy, for the more they posed as God’s true friends, the further they fell from God’s true friendship.
How much of the Pharisee is in me? How much do I pose and posture and seek recognition? We who are fallen always seek to climb the ladder of success. We scheme and strive and maneuver our way to praise, attention, recognition, and admiration as eagerly as children battle for candy at a parade. Oh that they will think highly of me! Oh that they will accept me! Oh that I will meet their expectations! Oh that I will “succeed”!
Some seek recognition in their profession, others in artistic and intellectual achievement, others in the public scene, others in obtaining power, others in petty, local vanity. We tend to exalt ourselves in as many eyes as possible, caring much about the opinion of our fellow men, when what Christ longs for is that we seek only to be pleasing in the sight of God: “Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Matthew 6:33). To humble myself, to give God his rightful place in my life, realizing that all the good I have is God’s gift – this is the secret to Christian success. After all, what, besides my sin, can I call my own? Do not my successes stem from circumstances, opportunities, and talents that I have received? What I should set my heart on, what Christ wants me to seek, is to please God, to obey him, to let him be my Master, my Father, my Friend. If God is pleased with me, what will I care about the opinion of the world?
Christ as Friend
It must have been difficult for Jesus to speak so harshly about the Pharisees and scribes. He only did so for the sake of the crowds and disciples who had witnessed the ongoing controversy. Jesus had done everything within his power – still respecting his enemies’ freedom – to win over his attackers, to meet them on their own ground, to open their closed minds to his saving truth. Only then does he pronounce judgment over them. Even this harsh task of uprooting the Jewish authorities – a task Jesus had the right and duty to perform, for the sake of those whom the authorities were leading astray – is performed with generosity, in the context of teaching a lesson that will serve the good of all.
This lesson Christ taught many times with words, all the time with his actions, and one time forever with his Passion, the ultimate expression of his love: “”he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
Christ in my Life
Never let me deceive myself, Lord. Help me see myself as I truly am. I want to follow you, to hear your voice each moment, to see your providential, loving action in every happening and encounter of my life. Teach me to walk by faith, Lord, not by sight”
I can only strive to please you if I know what truly pleases you. And I can only know what pleases you if I study and pray. I need you to keep me humble, Lord. I tend to slip into that self-destructive thirst for recognition and superiority. That tendency goes deep. Only your love goes deeper. Purify my heart, Lord. Teach me to think first of others, then of myself, as you did. Jesus, I trust in you”
Sometimes I have to point out others’ faults. Teach me to do so with true Christian charity. Teach me to separate the sin from the sinner. Teach me to seek the good of my enemies, the return of the lost sheep, just as you always do – just as you did with me. I don’t want to judge my brothers; that’s your job. I want to speak the truth in love. Mary, Queen of peace, pray for me”
Questions for Discussion
1. What struck you most about this passage? What did you notice that you hadn’t noticed before?
2. Christ was angry with the Pharisees for more than one reason. What were the reasons? Can he reprimand us for any of the same reasons that he reprimanded them?
3. To what extent does the society around us encourage Christian humility? To what extent does it encourage vanity and arrogance?
4. In what ways is hypocrisy (attending to appearances but not to the heart) most tempting for the Catholics I know? How can we arm ourselves against falling into this deadly sin?