Those Who Sit on Christ’s Seat, Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), October 30, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 30, 2005
Mal 1:14-2:2,8-10; 1Thess2:7-9,13; Mt 23:1-12

1) 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 take his 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.

2) 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.

3) 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. 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.

4) What does this mean for Catholics in New Bedford in 2005? A great deal! 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 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.

5) 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.

6) But there’s even a greater evil that priests 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.

7) Jesus today doubtless would be pained to make the same complaints about some of his clergymen that he put on the mouth of the prophet Malachi. Rather than tremble when they approach the pulpit, rather than pray that they pass on to others not their own words, but God’s, they substitute their own words and pretend as if it’s God’s. Earlier this morning in the Boston Globe, one of the columnists who regularly attacks the Church had praise for the man who used to be pastor of my home parish in Lowell, the priest who wrote my letter of recommendation to the seminary. But the praise was not because he was faithful, but unfaithful. Rather than teaching what Jesus did about marriage as the indissoluble union of one man and one woman (Mt 19:3-12) and rather than being obedient to what Archbishop O’Malley asked him to do, to promote the petition drive so that Massachusetts citizens can vote in referendum to defend marriage, this priest has signed a petition IN FAVOR of gay marriage and has been promoting its cause. Rather than being the echo of the Good Shepherd, he’s filling others who might be susceptible to his influence with an anti-Gospel, which is simply politically correct rubbish. A few weeks’ ago, something similar happened here in our own city of New Bedford. Someone who belongs to another parish but frequently comes to Mass during the week here told me that he asked his pastor why they were not doing the petitions in favor of the defense of marriage as Bishop Coleman asked him to do. The priest’s response was, “Vatican II prohibits us from doing such things.” That was simply a bald-faced unadulterated lie! Vatican II never said any such thing. It pains me to say these things, to speak ill of any of my brother priests, but out of love for you I must. Sometimes the priest, who is supposed to pass on to you Jesus’ words, relates instead his own gospel rather than the one Jesus entrusted to the Church. In many cases, rather than not merely practicing what they’re supposed to preach, they preach the immorality they practice. The pass on to others the poison of their own infidelity.

8 ) It’s important for Catholics today to know this reality, much like God wanted the people during the time of the prophet Malachi to know it. Very often Catholics come to me with questions, bewildered because a priest said something from the pulpit that was completely different than what they had learned growing up. They end up confused, not knowing what to believe. I could cite hundreds of examples of what Catholics have passed on to me, but here are some of the most common ones:

a. “It’s no longer necessarily to go to confession.”
b. “There’s really no such thing any more as a mortal sin.”
c. “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.”
d. “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.”
e. “Catholics no longer believe in Hell, because no God who loved us could possibly allow us to go to Hell.”
f. “The Church has no good reason not to ordain women as priests.”
g. “Jesus didn’t really work miracles.”
h. “Scripture really isn’t the word of God, but the word of men.”
i. “Lighting candles and devotion to the saints are really signs, not of faith, but of superstition.”
j. Some have even said, “The Eucharist is not really Jesus’ body and blood.”

I could go on with these falsehoods, but I think you get the point. Each of these priests who have taught falsely will have to answer to God. This type of priestly malpractice and theological abuse may be the worst and most harmful damage a priest can cause. Of course we need to pray for these priests. 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.

9) What does the Lord want from his priests? 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 they preach. In the rite of the ordination of deacons (which every future priest receives months prior to his priestly ordination), 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.” The priest is called to become one with the word, to believe it, teach it and put it into practice. The greatest way he teaches that Gospel, moreover, is by putting it into practice. His example is worth a thousand homilies. St. Francis of Assisi, the spiritual father and friend of our patron St. Anthony, recognized this fact cleary. Before sending his friars out to preach, he would instruct them: “Preach always, and when necessary use words.”

10) St. 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 that 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.”

11) St. Paul’s example shows both preachers and faithful important lessons. The true preacher always gives himself along with the Lord out of love to the people he’s send 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.

12) 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 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!