Those Who Sit on Christ’s Seat, Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), October 30, 2011 Audio Homily

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
October 30, 2011
Mal 1:14b;2:2 8-10, Ps 131:1-3, 1Thes 2:7-9 13, Mt 23:1-12

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click at the bottom of the page. The following text guided this homily:

THOSE WHO SIT ON CHRIST’S SEAT

  • In today’s Gospel, with very strong language, Jesus makes clear that we have only one Father, one Teacher and one Spiritual Guide — God himself. God is our Father, and any human fatherhood (physical for the dads here, and spiritual for the priest) is derivative and vicarious of the Eternal Father’s paternity. Jesus is our one Teacher or Master and any other teaching must point to Him who is the Truth. The Holy Spirit is our one Spiritual Guide, or Rabbi, and any other guide must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to point the person along the straight path to true life and love. Jesus tells us to call no one on earth our father, or teacher, or rabbi, because so often human parents, instructors, or guides, rather than leading us to God, sometimes can seem to want to take God’s place. Jesus’ concern is not really one of vocabulary, but of mentality. Regardless of the words we use, he wants us to know that no one can take his place as the giver of life, as our teacher and our guide — and to the extent that any parent, teacher, or guide is worthy of the name, they must first be a good child, student and disciple of the one Father, Teacher and Guide.
  • That said, Jesus also stresses, paradoxically, that God doesn’t work alone. Throughout salvation history, he has used many others as his instruments to bless us with the gifts of fatherhood, knowledge and direction. He illustrates this by what he says about the scribes and Pharisees. He tells us that they sit on “Moses’ seat.” God raised up Moses to pass on to the chosen people God’s words and direction, leading them from slavery into the promised land. The scribes were those people who made their entire living out of knowledge of the Law of the Covenant God gave through Moses. The Pharisees were the group of people who publicly dedicated themselves full-time to trying to live by that law. Jesus said that since they sit on Moses’ seat, “do whatever they teach you and follow it,” because it is not their words that one’s following, but God’s words through them.
  • Jesus also gave a warning, however, one that must have pained him to say: “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” They were hypocrites, who were not acting on the words of God. They used the word to put burdens on others, but had no love for those to whom they were preaching; they didn’t “lift a finger,” didn’t make the least effort, to help others understand how — as we discussed last week — every one of God’s commands is given out of love and meant to help us to learn how to love God and love others. It’s also obvious from other interactions that Jesus had with them that their knowledge of God’s word, rather than making them holier, had made them proud. Jesus told us that insofar as the Pharisees and the scribes sat in Moses’ chair and passed along to the people what Moses himself had heard from God, their words were actually God’s words and needed to be followed. Their personal hypocrisy, in other words, could not be used as an excuse by others not to follow the words of God they were teaching. But Jesus also stressed that we should not consider them great or exalted and follow them as individuals, because they were not humble servants of others, but rather proud hypocrites whose example would lead others astray.
  • What does this mean for Catholics in New Bedford in 2011? If Jesus, who said that we have only one Father, Teacher and Guide, told us that God works vicariously to pass on to us his words and guidance though those who sit on Moses’ seat, how much more would he say the same thing about those who sit not on Moses’ seat but on Christ’s own chair! The Pope is Christ’s own earthly vicar. The bishop is a successor of the apostles. The priest is ordained by Christ through a bishop to be his collaborators. All of them, to varying degrees, sit on Christ’s own chair and are called to transmit not just the law of Moses, given by God to the Jewish people, but the law of Jesus Christ, given by God to the whole human race. So much did Jesus identify with them as his messengers that, before he sent them out to preach, he said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Lk 10:16). So Jesus is clearly saying to everyone in the Church relative to Pope Benedict, Bishop Coleman and even me, “Insofar as they sit on my chair or stand in my pulpit, ‘do whatever they teach you and follow it,’ for it is not just they speaking, but I speaking through them.” Jesus wants all of us to receive the word just like the Thessalonians did, as St. Paul mentions in the second reading. He tells them, “[I] constantly give thanks to God, 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.” So, too, the word that our Holy Father or our bishop or even a simple parish priest passes on is not to be accepted as merely a “human word,” but AS IT REALLY IS, God’s word, at work in the heart of believers.
  • That’s the first powerful truth Jesus wants us to grasp today. But there’s another. Just as Jesus 2000 years ago didn’t stop with a simple affirmation of the divine provenance of his preachers’ words, so today too Jesus, with great pain, likely would say about some of the clergy he has chosen and ordained, “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” There have certainly been popes, bishops and priests who, like the scribes and Pharisees, have failed to live the word they preach to others. There are certainly priests today who burden others with the word, without showing them how it leads them to love God and others. There are priests whose knowledge of the word has made them proud rather than holy. There are priests who seek to live the “good life,” who drive expensive cars, get upgrades at airports, and always seek the respect of the office as if it was theirs personally. There are priests whose example not only should not be imitated, but should be castigated. In recent years, we have seen the names of some of those priests in our secular newspapers for having done simply abominable things. And what can be said about these religious leaders can also be said about some prominent, Catholic politicians, celebrities, judges, teachers, and parents who likewise have not put into practice the faith they profess.
  • But there’s even a greater evil that priests and other spiritual fathers, teachers and guides can do. Jesus didn’t even mention it in today’s Gospel, because, despite their defects, the scribes and the Pharisees reverenced the word of God so much that they never would have committed this evil. They may have misunderstood God’s word, but they would never have tried to change it, or ignore it, or lie about it. But it was not always that way. In the time after the exile when the book of Malachi was written, the priests were teaching contrary to the Law. In our first reading, God said through the prophet: “And now, O priests, this command is for you. … You have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble BY YOUR INSTRUCTION; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, … 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.” Their teaching was erroneous. Their teaching was forcing others to stumble. It was not based on the inerrant word of God, but on their own opinions or half-truths (“partiality”) in their synagogues. This happened because “they had not laid it to heart,” they did not act on it and their immoral behavior started to alter their preaching so that they began to preach the same untruths they practiced.
  • The same thing that happened in Malachi’s day happens in our own day. Very often Catholics come to me with questions, bewildered because a priest in the pulpit, or a Catholic professor in an article, or a prominent Catholic in public life or in their family said something that was completely different than what they had learned growing up. I could cite hundreds of examples of these false instructions, but here are some of the most common ones:
  1. “Jesus didn’t really work miracles.”
  2. “Scripture really isn’t the word of God, but the word of men.”
  3. “You don’t have to follow the teachings of the Pope and the bishops. You just have to follow your conscience.”
  4. “The Eucharist is not really Jesus’ body and blood, but just a symbol.”
  5. “Everyone, including non-Catholics, no matter what the state of one’s soul or marital situation, can and should come to Holy Communion at Mass.”
  6. “It’s no longer necessary to go to confession.”
  7. “It’s not a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday.”
  8. “There’s really no such thing any more as a mortal sin.”
  9. “The Church really doesn’t hold that sex outside of marriage, or contraceptive use in marriage, is really wrong, as long as people say they love each other.”
  10. “Catholics no longer believe in Hell, because no God who loved us could possibly allow us to go to Hell.”
  11. “The Church’s teachings on marriage are homophobic and immoral, discriminating against those of the same-sex who just want to love each other and have their loved sanctioned.”
  12. “The Church has no good reason not to ordain women as priests.”
  13. “It’s possible to be a good Catholic and be pro-choice, as long as you wouldn’t have an abortion yourself.”
  • I could go on with these falsehoods, but I hope that the point if clear. Each of these priests, or professors, or parents, or prominent Catholics who have taught falsely will have to answer to God. This type of preaching malpractice and theological abuse may be the worst and most harmful damage a priest or teacher can cause. Of course we need to pray for them. But we also need to be on-guard against such falsehoods; the greatest defense we could have is to know our faith well, so that we would never be gullible to such deceptions masquerading as truths.
  • What does the Lord want from those who are called to be priests, or teachers, or parents, passing on the faith to others? It’s obvious that he wants them to have integrity, to preach His words — all of them, including the more challenging messages — and to practice what he wants them to preach. In the rite of the ordination of deacons (which every future priest receives months prior to his priestly ordination, but the central truths can be applied to anyone), there’s a beautiful moment when the candidate kneels before the bishop in front of the altar. The prelate takes the Book of the Gospel and places it in the candidates hands, saying, “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” Each of us is called to become one with the word, to believe it, teach it and put it into practice. The greatest way we share that Gospel, moreover, is by putting it into practice. Our example is worth a thousand homilies or books or treatises. St. Francis of Assisi, the spiritual father and friend of our patron St. Anthony, recognized this fact clearly. Before sending his friars out to preach, he would instruct them: “Preach always, and if you must, use words.”
  • Paul was one who lived, preached and practiced in this way. In the beautiful second reading, he says his intention was to treat them with the love of a “nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” And the greatest way he could do that was to share with them “not only the Gospel of God, but also our very selves.” Paul was giving them not only the words of eternal life, but his whole being as well, which had become one with that word. In this he achieved greatness. Christ said at the end of today’s Gospel that the greatest would be the humble servant of the rest, and St. Paul was. He was so humble he even worked his old job as a tentmaker so that he wouldn’t even be a minimal burden among them. His greatest thanks was that they received the Gospel well, “not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”
  • Paul’s example shows all of us who are called to pass on our faith important lessons. The true preacher always gives himself along with the Lord out of love to the people he’s sent to serve. And the true preacher’s greatest prayer is that the community receives the word not as his own, but as it truly is, the Word of God at work in those who believe. That is the way his listeners will be transformed — like Paul, like the other apostles, like so many of their early Christian communities — to become one with that word. Then the student will be able to be a teacher, the son or daughter, a spiritual parent, the disciple, a spiritual guide, enfleshing that word and bringing it to others. The same Jesus who told us that only one is our Father, Teacher and Spiritual Guide, wants to enable us to become his instruments to bring his teaching, fatherly care and direction to others, in our homes, at school, at work, everywhere we are and go. His last words before ascending to heaven were “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them and reminding them of everything I have taught you, knowing that I am with you always until the end of the world.” And he wants us, through transformation by his saving word every Mass, to carry out those marching orders.
  • Perhaps the greatest role model of the transformation Christ wants to bring about is the woman whom we celebrate in a particular way throughout the month of October, Mary. She was a humble, attentive listener to God’s word, who treasured that word in her contemplative heart, who was praised by her Son for hearing the Word and putting it into practice. She became one with it spiritually so much that that word literally took her flesh and dwelled among us. She passed on that Gospel incarnate to us along with her very self. That Word made Flesh who dwelled in her womb in a few minutes will take up his abode within us. He wants his Word to take on our flesh, as our body and blood unite with His. This is the way we will become truly sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. This is the way we will be become true disciples of the Master. This is the way by which Christ, in transforming us, will make us capable of transforming others, by passing on his Gospel to them along with our very selves. The Lord who calls us to this mission will give us all the help he knows we need to do it, provided that we give him our yes and allow the word he has preached to us today and told us to act on to take on our very flesh!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1MAL 1:14B-2:2B, 8-10

A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.
And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?

Responsorial PsalmPS 131:1, 2, 3

R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.
O LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.
Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.
O Israel, hope in the LORD,
both now and forever.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.

Reading 21 THES 2:7B-9, 13

Brothers and sisters:
We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly,
that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us,
you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe.

AlleluiaMT 23:9B, 10B

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
You have but one Father in heaven
and one master, the Christ.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

GospelMT 23:1-12

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”