Today's Scripture calls us to examine our conscience about the sincerity of our words and of our lives. We should rid ourselves of all hypocrisy and respect the truth about ourselves, in God's sight. Bishops and others in a leadership role, have special need to be self-critical, for the potential to be Pharisaic resides in all of us
I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.
But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction. Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?
We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
"But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
It is important that the homily should not distort the teaching of Christ by giving undue emphasis to some personal viewpoint of the preacher, one which does not receive similar emphasis in the Gospels. But in choosing to illustrate the dangers of Pharisaism the preacher is on solid ground; for the Gospels have many conflicts between Christ and the Pharisees and he denounces their approach. What follows are called the "Woes" against the Pharisees. It is a pity that this section has not been selected for any Sunday throughout the three year cycle, for it helps to give a picture of the dangers, not only of Pharisaism in the time of Christ, but of the perils of the false practice of religion in all ages, including our own.
Pharisaism can be seen from several angles. It is the belief that one can save oneself through the observance of law, through the performance of works of piety, fasting, prayer and almsgiving with an eye on the praise of men. The Pharisees tended to put stress on little things ("Tithe of mint, dill and cummin') while neglecting the much more important matters of faith, justice and mercy. They were noted for their zeal in making converts who in due time became twice as bad as their converters. The outcome was that the Pharisees tended to be hypocrites, a title which Jesus bestowed on them with great liberality.
The "Woes" in Matthew against the Pharisees end with Christ denouncing them for violence, especially against the prophets whose blood they shed and whose tombs they later adorned. "You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets! Very well then, finish off the work that your fathers began." Mat. 23:32. The finishing off of the work was the death of Christ for which the Pharisees were largely responsible. The works of piety, the strict observance of law was a defence mechanism at work within the Pharisees. They suffered from a sense of guilt which they refused to acknowledge, as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican informs us. However, if guilt is not acknowledged within oneself, it seeks a victim outside oneself. We can say that Christ was the victim on whom the Pharisees projected their own unacknowledged sense of guilt. No wonder that the repentant sinner of the Parable who cried out, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner," is exalted by Christ above the Pharisee who thanked God he was not asinner.
Today's Gospel is an invitation to all, especially the more pious and those who tend to be judgmental of others, to examine behind our good works. Are they an escape from a sense of guilt? If so, the remedy is not the rejection of piety and good works, but a search for a precious gift of God, the willingness to face up to ourselves by acknowledging our personal and national guilt.
Today's second reading issues a challenge to all Christians--especially the preacher! We are supposed to live up to what we say we are, followers of Christ. We are, in a single word, called to live by love, love in its deepest and Christian sense.
This word "Love" is much bandied about but less frequently understood and practiced. Jesus gave the supreme example of its real meaning in his life, death and resurrection. But he did not die and rise in order to prevent or excuse us from sharing personally in his selfless experience. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to be Christians with Him, we must in our turn undergo death and resurrection. We must practise what we preach! We must mean what we say and do what we mean.
In the play A Man for All Seasons (by Robert Bolt) there is a scene in which Margaret, the daughter of Thomas More, pleads with her father to desist from his opposition to the dissolute Henry VIII and swear to the Act of Succession. So lie will save his life and be released from jail. But More is unwilling to do something he doesn't believe in. He says: "If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly.. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit us far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and we have to choose to be human at all.. why then perhaps we must stand fast a little--even at the risk of being heroes." Margaret, emotionally, still begs him to compromise: "Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?" And her father replies in words that should be written in gold: "Well.. finally.. it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love."
This is the love that Christ spoke about and practised. In the end we shall be judged on that alone. Our often ragged efforts to bring direction and meaning to the "animated aimlessness" of our lives will--if touched by the love of God and expressed through genuine service of our fellow human beings--have an eternal value.