31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

The entire 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, from which this passage we read today is taken, is an unrelenting, unforgiving diatribe against the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We know that a deep opposition existed between him and the Pharisees, but many scripture scholars recognize in this portion of scripture an opposition that was not confined to Jesus’ time and ministry. It was a reflection of the bitter conflict that had developed between Pharisaic Judaism and the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers at the time of the gospel’s composition. The followers of this “new way” – it was quite a while before they were called Christians—still saw themselves essentially as Jews, belonging to Israel, instead of some separatist group. Matthew saw among the community of Jesus’ followers many of the same faults that Jesus himself found in the Pharisees. So the evangelist warns his sisters and brothers about some misguided attitudes and behaviors. It would be simplistic to think that all Pharisees in Jesus’ time were evil. So when we limit the message of Jesus to the people of his own time, we fail to hear it in our day, somehow convinced we are not the Pharisees he speaks to.

“Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.”[1] One of the greatest challenges I encounter in my life as a priest is when I come before this community of believers and tell you how I live my faith so that you might be challenged to look at how you live your faith. It is a challenge because I am constantly reminded of Jesus’ injunction to practice what I preach. A few weeks after I started preaching regularly in my year as a deacon, before I was ordained a priest, it became clear to me that I often did not know what I was talking about. I found it easy to speak words to inspire, words that had the power and force of a poet, a prophet or a charismatic leader, words that soothed and comforted, words that challenged and encouraged. But those very same words came back to haunt me. More and more I found myself falling short of the challenge I put before others. More and more it became obvious that I did not practice everything I preached. I made the effort but did not always succeed. So, I tell you, “Do not follow my example.” When I speak of loving others, of forgiving and letting go, of seeing beyond the externals, of being patient and kind, I realize that I am not always inclined to love, and to forgive, and to be patient and kind. I am not always inclined to see beyond what my eyes see, to see what is good in other people. The challenge I put before you I put before myself first and foremost. I am like yourselves, struggling and weak, perhaps struggling more, perhaps weaker. Maybe someone else in this room sets a better example than me. Follow their example. If we live only as faithful to God as our priests and pastors, or even as the bishop or the pope, then we are not meeting the challenge to be perfect as the Father is perfect. We are only striving for that level of perfection someone else has attained.

“Do not be called ‘rabbi.’ … Call no one on earth your father. … Do not be called ‘master;’ you have but one master, the Christ.”[2] I have never been called ‘rabbi.’ But Jesus did not want us to call anyone ‘father’ or ‘master’ either. Yet if we hear only the command to avoid titles of distinction, then we miss Jesus’ point entirely.

It is the legalistic observance of rules that Jesus warns us to guard against. The Pharisees sincerely believed that their most important duty as leaders of the community was to demand the fulfillment of the letter of the law, often to the neglect of the spirit of the law. They taught that all must pray at the three designated times of the day. In and of itself, the exact observance of the law made people good. But why do WE pray? They taught others to worship in the synagogue every Sabbath and to follow the rituals of purification down to the smallest detail because these were Moses’ instructions, and therefore, the expression of God’s will. But why do WE go to church each Sunday? Why do WE not eat food for an hour before receiving Communion? Why do WE have to confess our serious sins in the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving Communion? We are called to see beyond the letter of the law. The true challenge of living the faith is that it demands of us more than the obvious. It demands that we reflect upon the living message beneath the sometimes impersonal law.

What might be the reason Jesus teaches us to avoid titles? Is it because titles are evil? Is it not rather that we might hide behind titles and forget that all are equally called to the same challenge of living the gospel, from the pope down to the newly baptized? Is it not rather that titles can blur the focus of living the gospel challenge because we can concern ourselves unnecessarily with being better only than the person who sits next to or behind us in church? Does a title of distinction make living the gospel easier? Does it produce a better person? The law was intended to draw Israel closer to God, to help God’s people be more faithful. If all we want to be is faithful to a set of commands, we can still be unfaithful to God. That would just be hypocrisy.

“The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”[3] The challenge goes out to all who claim the God of Jesus Christ, all who call him Lord and Savior, all who belong to the community of the baptized, all who await the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of everlasting life. The call goes out to each of us not simply to observe a bunch of rules, not just to fulfill a list of requirements, not just to complete a checklist of things to do. We are invited above all to encounter the God who calls each of us by name, to understand our role in God’s plan of salvation, to participate willingly in the transformation of all creation, and to share with others Jesus’ message of hope and promise of eternal life through the example of our living.

Jesus’ invitation is not just for priests and bishops and popes, not just for religious women and men, and parish councils, and liturgical ministers. Jesus’ invitation is for all who seek to follow him more closely, you and me. Don’t limit yourselves to observing the law in detail or to imitating the example of someone else, no matter how holy or humble. Follow Jesus. Listen to his message of compassion and service. Put away the Halloween masks and inflated titles that we so easily hide behind. Cast aside the mechanical and unthinking observance of rules. Encounter God who calls you to share his own life and who invites you to share yours with him. Jesus alone is the way, the truth and the life. Follow him.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] Matthew 23: 3

[2] Matthew 23: 8-10

[3] Matthew 23: 11-12