Today’s gospel [Matthew 23:1-12] gives us some of what we sometimes call Jesus’ “hard sayings,” in which Jesus challenges us – as opposed to affirming us (which is what our therapeutic culture wants and teaches us to expect). The context was his conflict with 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 that written law. In Jesus’ time, they were one of several sometimes competing Jewish factions.
Later, however, after the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees 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 conflicts 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.
In the process, the scribes and the Pharisees came to be seen as anti-models of what was expected of disciples. Jesus’ words were apparently addressed to all his disciples – not just to those destined for positions of authority and leadership. But, by extension, it makes sense to see the scribes and the Pharisees as anti-models for how leaders in particular are to behave.
If nothing else, these scriptures suggest that criticism – especially criticism of anyone in authority – is one of the constants of human society. We also just heard the prophet Malachi’s outburst in today’s 1st reading [Malachi 1:14b – 2:2b, 8-10] against Israel’s priests (who were a completely different group from the scribes and the Pharisees, but still an important and powerful group as long as the Temple was still standing).
We live in an age right now in which it is exceptionally challenging to be an authority of any kind. We love to build people up and then tear them down – particularly politicians and entertainers, but pretty much any public figure of any standing in almost any area of society. And, of course, presidents, politicians, and public figures of all sorts – in business, education, entertainment, religion, in all areas of society – have frequently behaved so as to deserve criticism as severe as Jesus’ attacks on the scribes and the Pharisees or Malachi’s earlier attacks on the priests.
The danger, of course, is when 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 in the first place! In a world where everyone is a critic, Church too can be a fractious arena of rancorous factional bickering. Perhaps it was ever thus, and modern means of communication, especially social media, have merely made it that much more obvious – especially nowadays when more and more people seem to adapt their religious beliefs to their partisan political loyalties. 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. Paul certainly understood that; hence his self-analysis, in today’s 2nd reading [1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13], of his own leadership.
But Jesus’ challenge to his disciples reminds us that it is 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 said, at work in us now – even in spite of ourselves.
Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 5, 2017.