October 30, 2011
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 23: 1-12
After describing four controversies with various religious leaders about paying
taxes to Caesar, the nature of resurrection, the greatest commandment, and the
Messiah (22:15-46), Matthew places Jesus' strong judgments against these
authorities. The growing schism with the religious authorities of his own Jewish
community will eventually result in Jesus' arrest and execution under the
oppressive power of the Roman government.
In the first judgment, contained in today's passage, Jesus indicts the Pharisees
who speak with the authority of Moses. Jesus tells the people and his own
disciples to do whatever they teach, but they should not follow their example.
Because of their authority, they can lay heavy burdens on people's shoulders,
but do not lift a finger to help carry them. They do good works in order to be
seen. They love all the marks of honor, and love to be called teacher.
Then Jesus gives instructions to his own disciples: do not be called teacher
because you have but one teacher; do not call anyone father because you have but
one master, Christ. "The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts
himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
The unredeemed situation which Jesus addresses in this gospel passage is the
human tendency to live in the prideful illusion of autonomy. (It is not a matter
of removing titles from the dictionary.) When we are in that illusion about our
most fundamental truth, we forget that all that we are and all that we do is
ultimately a gift from God. We then seek honors for ourselves rather than living
the truth that all glory belongs to God. Today's gospel reminds us that holding
a position of power in religion appears to be particularly vulnerable to
self-exaltation and abuse.
The tendency to take advantage of one's position of power by no means is limited
to people in religion. Power in general has a tendency to corrupt. Examples of
political corruption are rampant. In our culture, however, scientists, not
religious leaders, hold positions with the most powerful teaching authority. I
think of the late Carl Sagan who, in his TV Cosmos series, proclaimed that "the
Cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be."
This famous teacher, I'm sure, was quite aware of the limits of astronomy and
the scientific method. He was aware that his philosophical assertion of
secularism was not a conclusion of any scientific experiment. You have the same
abuse of power when a scientist in a position of teaching authority proclaims
that evolution or the "big bang" proves there is no need of the Creator.
We may use titles -- with lower case, as it were -- only with the realization of
the truth that we hold positions of power as a gift and in humble dependence
upon God. If we had only Jesus' warning about the abuse of power, today's gospel
passage would hardly be good news. The good news comes from our belief that the
Risen Lord is present in the Eucharistic liturgy to share his Spirit with us.
From the Spirit of truth we hope to receive the gift of using power not for
ourselves, but in humble service to others.
Whatever our title -- father, mother, bishop, priest, president, pastor,
professor, Christian -- each one connects us to God, the source of our being and
the source of our power. All gratitude and service belong to us. All honor and
glory belong to God.
Campion P. Gavaler, OSB