The trajectory from Jesus’ teaching we hear today to our own life together is rather clear and straightforward. St. Matthew tells us of Jesus’ teachings to his disciples in the Temple, words that a gathering crowd overhears and then becomes part of the audience. Jesus warns them all about the Pharisees, not the content of their teachings about the Law. The Torah is God’s holy Word and the Pharisees rightly teach it. No, it is all of the “packaging” of their teaching that’s the problem. But the trajectory continues, from this tradition of Jesus’ teaching in
the Temple shortly before hi, Passion, and Death to that of the church of St. Matthew.
After the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans, a shift in the center of gravity in Jewish law and practice was occurring. The Pharisees were evolving into Rabbinic Judaism. And Matthew’s church was engaged in a deep and contentious struggle to identify itself as the movement that proclaimed Jesus as Messiah. And now, we discover that the trajectory has continued and we here at _________ name the parish) are the most recent recipients of our Lord’s teachings. So we join with the disciples and the crowd and Matthew’s church in hearing Jesus' teachings this day. Once again, the church hears Jesus speak of the Pharisees. They do teach the right things--God's righteous Law, revealed to Moses upon the mountain. Then comes the counter point. "But do not follow their example." Put simply, Jesus sums up the problem: "They do not practice what they preach."
Of course, this saying has gained its place in our world. We hear it now and then, usually directed towards some public official or other. There is a major contradiction between what we hear from such people and what we discover that they are practicing. But along with the disciples, we are God’s people and, as the Apostle tells us in 1 Peter 4:17, “judgement begins with the household of God.” So we begin, not with “those out there” who don’t practice what they preach, but with those of us who are the baptized, thechousehold of God. We bump into such tensions between speech and actions right away.
We have fine statements on the unity of Christ’s church and we pray for this unity week in and week out. Yet we look around and all sorts of denominations and communions are having church schisms right now. This “one Body in Christ” is suffering more divisions than in a long time. You drive by some of these “disaffiliating churches” and see sign painters brushing out the former denomination’s name on the sign board and drawing in the new name. And even if there is no overt division occurring, we all feel the tensions in our church between more traditionalist and more reform-minded partisans. (The homilist
is invited to select other church-dividing issues here.) “Practice what you preach,”
Jesus cautions. Do not be like the Pharisees.
Pope Francis described some faithful as "Christian parrots." They have, "words, words, words;" but don "practice what they preach." 1 But our faith is stronger than that. We hear our Lord’s words and they register with us at a deep and profound level. We are those who are called to practice what we preach. Perhaps it is time for some equally deep penitence at those places where we have mimicked the world and become baptized Pharisees.
Jesus adds to his charges against the Pharisees. Yes, they do rightly teach God’s Law. But as a by-product of that faithful teaching, they “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry.” These burdens weigh down the shoulders of God’s people. Such burdens lead to a low morale and burnout among the faithful, …even when the teachings are of God’s truth. In some parishes, there is a dynamic in play that adds such burdens, even though no one overtly complains. This problem stems from the practice of keeping the parish leadership in place, reappointed time after time, and depending on the same people. Some of these gifted members are cycled through various committees and positions because they are good at most anything. And you never hear them complain because of their strong sense of commitment and duty. But piling up such heavy burdens on a small group of leaders is not healthy for those “recycled” leaders and certainly not healthy as a way of inviting new persons with their own vocations in ministry to rise up. On the
other hand, if a “Spiritual Gifts” retreat were held in that parish, there would be surprises as parishioners are energized and come forward to use their newfound gifts. Then, too, those recurrent leaders might now be able to politely turn down yet another invitation to fill a “slot” and enrich the entire church with their deepest gifts of the Spirit. The last thing any parish needs is to re-up the same leaders again and again. This easy-way-out approach fills open positions in
parish leadership, to be certain. But it does “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry.”
The work of the laity remains on the same few shoulders.
Notice, though, how Jesus’ teaching concludes today. He adds, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. This is our true and enduring identity in Christ. We have been baptized into a covenant of servants, equipped by the Holy Spirit with the virtue of humility. No long tassels on our prayer shawls and no climbing over anyone to get to the top place in our family, our business, or our church. It is the power of love, that wondrous gift from God that frees us to set aside control and domination and moves us to take up the vocation of humble
In one tourist hot spot near a national park, many churches crowd along the drive into town. But stop at the local supermarket and only one collection box for donations to feed the hungry is seen. “Help the St. Francis Catholic Church Feed the Hungry,” the sign says. The big box is emptied every week, and the poor are fed. There is an intimate connection between the Christian virtue of humility and the vocation of the servants in Christ. No calls for attention, no promises of instant riches and fame, no clamoring for the places of honor in church and community. Servants are humble and the two are joined hand and glove. They are bonded
together by the power of love.
This Sunday (eve of the Feast) our Lord addresses us along with the disciples and the crowd there at the Temple. Christ speaks to us along with those new Christians in St. Matthew’s church. To all of us, he cautions about seeking fame and lording it over others. We all hear of the wrong way to preach without being those who practice. All are warned not to be Christian parrots. To be great, Jesus teaches, is to be a servant. Exalt yourself, you will be humbled. But to humble yourself, you will be exalted by the crucified and risen Lord.
1 Pope Francis, Premier Christian News, Jan 18 2017,