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Gospel Reflection 05 Nov






Thirty-first Sunday of Year A [Mt 23:1-12]

05 November 2017


Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees


Readings: (1) Mal 1:14-2:2.8-10 (2) 1 Thess 2:7-9.13


1.  Theme in brief

Renouncing pharisaical attitudes and behaviour

2.   Focus Statement  

Instead of hankering after titles, honour and recognition from others, we need to render selfless service to society, and uphold equality and brotherhood among all the members of the Church.

3.  Explanation of the text

In today’s gospel text Jesus tells the crowds and disciples around him that the religious leaders of Judaism, namely the scribes and Pharisees, sit on the seat of authority and judge others (23:2). They demand from others what themselves do not live or practice (23:3). Jesus criticizes them on two grounds: (1) though they teach good things from the Law of Moses (Torah), they themselves do not obey it; (2) theirmotivation for teaching the Law is to gain human favour and honour. They use their religious practices and piety to attract attention towards themselves, not to give glory to God. They do it for their own glory.
Since the scribes and Pharisees sit on "Moses’ seat" (23:2), they teach by his authority which needs to be respected. Therefore, in spite of their human weakness, what they teach after all comes from God’s word. Therefore, Jesus says, what they teach, namely, the word of God, is worthy of following, but the disciples are not to obey the all the traditions and the man-made rules of the Pharisees that are imposed on people. Nor should they imitate their personal example, because they do not practice what they teach (23:3). In other words, their bad example should not prevent the disciples form accepting their good message; but the disciples should not imitate their actions or behaviour.
The scribes and Pharisees think that titles of honour, such as Rabbi, with which people address them are a sign of greatness and holiness. Jesus teaches that his disciples must be detached not only from material possessions but also from titles, honours, recognition and power. (23:8-10). Instead of hankering after titles and recognition from society, they need to render selfless service to it. He teaches that true greatness comes from serving others, not in forcing others to serve us. He accuses the scribes and Pharisees for laying heavy burdens of rules and regulations on ordinary people without compassion, but they themselves do not practice them. Moreover they do all the pious practices to be seen by others, and not out of love for God or neighbours. Externally they put up a pious show but interiorly are corrupt or dubious (23:5).
Jesus further lays down the principle of equality and brotherhood among his disciples which are the signs of God’s Kingdom (23:9-10). He prohibits the use of titles such as Rabbi, Instructor, Teacher and Father. He has come to establish a society of fraternity where all those who follow him will regard one another as brothers and sisters who have only one Heavenly Father and one Instructor and Teacher, namely, Christ.

4.  Application to life                      

In all of us there is a desire to seek prestige and status. Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching today, we need to examine whether there were occasions in the past when we strongly or mildly reacted and resented when people did not give honour and due importance to us in public places or in private houses. Though the observance of proper protocol is the normal way in civil society and political circles, Christ’s disciples are not called to react and retaliate if people fail to observe it; sometimes wilfully, sometimes forgetfully or unconsciously.
Today’s gospel challenges all those who are in positions of authority in the Church or in society. They have a special responsibility to show by personal example and action at least some portion of what they teach and preach. Their ‘audio’ should be synchronized with ‘video’ – if not as perfectly as in electronics but at least to some extent. In other words, what people hear from them in their preaching and teaching (‘audio’) should correspond to what people see in action and conduct (‘video’).  If it doesn’t synchronize (match) in any way, their personal integrity naturally gets diminished. Once this happens, they lose respect. Respect for a leader is very essential to command obedience. In olden days children and students used to obey parents and teachers out of fear for their authority. With increasing secularization and the laws about child protection in modern democracies this fear is diminished to a great extent. But now parents and teachers can command respect and obedience from their children and students only if the latter see their parents/teachers practicing what they teach and preach.
The same principle is true of all those who are in authority or leadership roles. If parents tell their children not to quarrel or fight, but see their parents fighting in front of them; and if teachers tell their students to be punctual, but see their teachers coming late, how can they expect respect for their words or instructions? No respect, no obedience! Needless to say, the same principle applies to all the religious leaders more than parents and teachers, because they occupy "the seat of Moses" (23:2). Religious leaders may give a fiery speech on moral and spiritual principles for public consumption, but if they not practice them, they shall lose respect. Sometimes such leaders are tempted to demand from others high integrity, which they themselves do not bother to practice. Each one of us can detect a Scribe or a Pharisee in us. The Lord invites us to drive him out and live our true self.
Through this gospel, Jesus challenges us to guard ourselves against doing anything only to draw people’sattention, to build a personality cult around us, to hanker for places of honour at banquets, to get front seats in places of worship, to hear greetings in marketplaces and to be addressed with honorific titles. As leaders, what is our motive? To get honour and recognition for ourselves, or to do service to others? Are we so attached to these honours that we consider them more important than our duty? This text reminds us that we become great by our humble service, and not by honours or titles. We need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to dirty our hands in lifting our fingers in rendering sacrificial service like Jesus, or become like Jewish leaders who were "unwilling to lift a finger" to serve (23:4).
Jesus advocates the values of equality and brotherhood (fraternity) in today’s gospel. The Constitutions of many modern democratic nations have abolished racial, ethnic and caste inequalities. They have advocated the equality of all citizens before law. There are societies where a section of people are considered untouchable and outcasts. Though these practices are outlawed in book, people have not abolished them from their minds and attitudes. Our social system considers some people lower and some higher in rank, and in workplaces white-collared bosses are higher in rank than blue-collared workers are. This does not mean they are not equal in human dignity. In some societies those who do menial works are treated as low. Does human dignity depend on the type of work they do, or the amount of salary paid for a job? Indignation, hatred and discrimination, based on race, caste, gender, social rank, etc., go totally against God’s Kingdom. This gospel principle is yet to penetrate fully in the minds of Christians, because the influence of social culture is so strong and deeply rooted.
Though Jesus prohibits the use of four titles such as Rabbi, Instructor, Teacher and Father, in our world and in the Church, in human society and in the Church people do express their respect for authority by addressing them by various honorific titles. No matter what title people use, Christ’s disciples, including church leaders, are not to demand from people such titles. If those who hold these titles do not lord it over or become authoritarian or power conscious, and use their power to render humble service, they are on the side of Jesus.

5.  Response to God's Word

Do we react when we are not honoured and given prominent places in public functions? Does our personal example match somehow with what we teach and preach? How do we use our authority: to impose our power over people ot to serve them? Do we consider all people equal, especially those whom our society considers lower in rank, occupation, salary and social status? What can we do to promote equality among us, especially in dealings with the poor and the marginalized? Do we respect the dignity of all people who do lowliest services?

6.  A prayer


Jesus, my Teacher, instruct and guide me to walk in the path of integrity. Give me the courage to practice what I teach and practice. You alone are my Lord and Master. Amen.

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