When I was a graduate student, getting my doctorate in political philosophy, more years ago than I care to remember, dinner most days was in the Graduate College Dining Hall, a grand Gothic structure dominated by a stained glass window featuring the “Seven Liberal Arts,” beneath which was inscribed a quote from today’s Gospel [Matthew 23:1-12], Nec vocemini magistri, sed magister vester unus es Christus (“Do not be called teachers, for your one teacher is Christ”). I remember, even then, thinking that rather odd in a grad school setting, since most of those eating there fully expected to end up as university professors somewhere.
In the almost 4 decades since, I have had the privilege of answering to two of the titles treated by Jesus as problematic in today’s gospel – first, as a teacher in a university and then as a priest, on whom Catholic tradition bestows the honorable and affectionate title of “Father.” (I just celebrated my 16th ordination anniversary two days ago – the feast of the Apostle Jude, the same St. Jude so commonly invoked as the patron of hopeless cases and lost causes).
Today’s gospel gives us some of what are sometimes called Jesus’ “hard sayings,” in which Jesus challenges us when we would rather be affirmed and draws a line in the sand when we would rather he were more inclusive. In today’s gospel, he harshly criticizes the behavior of the scribes and the Pharisees (whose authority he tells us to respect, but whose behavior we are not to imitate).
In 1st-century Israel, the scribes (some of whom were also Pharisees) were legal experts. The Pharisees themselves were pious laypeople trying to live lives of faithful observance of both the written law and the oral traditions that surrounded and were intended to protect it. In Jesus’ time, they were just one of several significant Jewish factions.
Later, however, after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, they would emerge as the dominant element, that would eventually evolve into what we have since come to call “rabbinic” or “orthodox” Judaism. In the memory of Jesus’ occasional quarrels with the scribes and the Pharisees, the early Christians no doubt saw their own conflict (as a breakaway Jewish group) with the new Jewish establishment that opposed the early Church. Hence the gospels’ recurrent emphasis on stories that portray Jesus in conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees.
In the process, the scribes and the Pharisees became kind of anti-models of what was expected of disciples. Jesus’ words were addressed to all his disciples – not just to those destined for positions of authority and leadership. But it is an easy leap to treat the scribes and the Pharisees as anti-models for how leaders in particular are to behave.
Certainly the prophet Malachi’s outburst against Israel’s priests in today’s 1st reading [Malachi 1:14b – 2:2b, 8-10] rather reinforces such an interpretation. If nothing else, it shows that criticism is one of the constants of human society. We live in an age right now in which it is exceptionally challenging to be any kind of public figure. The media love to build people up and then tear them down – particularly presidents and presidential candidates, but not just them.
Often, of course, we criticize our leaders as a way of excusing ourselves.
Thus we criticize politicians as if we weren’t the ones who had elected them! Church life is also – all too often – a fractious arena of rancorous factional bickering. In a world where everyone is a critic, laypeople complain about their priests, and priests complain about their bishops – much too much, of course, and (as often as not) as a way of excusing ourselves for our own failings. Perhaps, it was ever thus. The early Church certainly saw its share of factional in-fighting. Maybe they highlighted these sayings of Jesus in the gospel precisely in the hope that its hearers would take Jesus’ words more to heart in their own cases.
Still, being accountable goes with the territory – as it should. Back in the 4th century, St. Augustine famously said: “With you I am a Christian; for you I am a bishop.” All of us are accountable – individually and collectively – for how we live our lives and what kind of disciples we are. Those of us in positions of leadership are also accountable in a special way to and for those we have been appointed to lead.
But the fundamental focus of Jesus’ challenge to his disciples in the gospel is that it’s ultimately not about us. It’s about God, our one Father in heaven and our one teacher and one master, Jesus Christ, who has made it possible for the word of God to be, as St. Paul [1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13] said, at work in us now – even in spite of ourselves.
Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 30, 2011.