31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
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."
It is a measure of the harshness of Jesus’ condemnation of his own religious community in Chapter 23 that R.T. France goes to considerable trouble to explain the context of Jesus’ own time and the context of the time and community when the composition of Matthew’s Gospel was completed, about fifty years later. (pp. 853ff) This “summary condemnation” which extends beyond the text chosen for next Sunday is a startling statement that leaves me at something of a loss to explain its ferocity. If one were to content one’s self with the safe interpretation that Jesus’ words are a historical anomaly directed at a cabal of religious leaders at a specific time for specific lapses, then the content of this Gospel is reduced to a highway accident scene with the state trooper waving rubberneckers along with the admonition “move on, nothing to see here.”
For much of the Church’s history the Gospels were read at face value, as historical chronicles. The primary work of academics involved harmonizing and accounting for differences in texts; St. John’s Gospel was often bracketed as “the mystical Gospel” for its evidently different style and emphasis. This was a particularly unfortunate for the Jews, for texts such as Matthew’s cited here provided Christians with justification for violent and prolonged anti-Semitic acts and teachings down to Vatican II. In the twentieth century scholars came to realize that the four Gospels were different for a very good reason: each evangelist was a theologian as well as a historian, endowed with a unique insight into the meaning of the Incarnation and its impact upon the followers of Jesus and the world.
Moreover, the geographic distances between the locations of authorship and the many years between Jesus’ life and the composition of the Gospel texts led scholars to the understanding that the Gospels are not simply descriptions of the past but laden with meaning for the present. In Matthew’s case this weekend, the words of Jesus to his own contemporaries have been brought forward a half-century later when two new factors came into play. First, Judaism had been broken by its four-year rebellion and siege, crushed by the Romans by 70 A.D., and the structures and groups attacked by Jesus did not hold the power they once did, given the forced scattering of Jews throughout the Mediterranean basin known as the diaspora. Matthew’s emphasis upon this narrative at least a decade after the fall of Jerusalem strongly suggests an enduring relevance of his powerful message to Jewish authorities.
Which brings us around to the second point, the fact that Matthew was writing for a Christian Church with strong Jewish roots. Many years had passed since Caiphas was the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, but Christians were still knowledgeable of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, thanks to the tradition handed down to Matthew. France comments that the acrimony between Christians and Jews, at the time of this Gospel, was intense—Jews were expelling Christians from local synagogues and exposing them to Roman persecutions. Romans generally had regarded Christians as a sect of Judaism; Jews were respected as good citizens in Rome, in part because Rome respected the antiquity of Jewish history and worship. Losing the Jewish mantra led to the charge of atheism against Christians.
That said, Matthew is writing for the salvation of his own Christian community. Were the sins of the leaders of Judah cropping up in the organic development of Christianity? And if this is the case, do the judgment texts of the end of Matthew’s Gospel have equal bearing today? Consider this: in the A Cycle there are only three more Matthean Gospels after Sunday: the parable of the stewards given various talents, with blessings for the best return and damnation for low results; the wise and the foolish virgins, with rewards to those far-sighted enough to fill their lamps with oil for the return of the bridegroom; and on November 26 the Feast of Christ the King, where those who have tended to the poor and powerless will be rewarded by the great king with everlasting life, and the others to an unimaginable desolation.
It is hard to imagine that Jesus [and Matthew, for that matter] intended this prolonged condemnation of religious success and failure for a relatively minute audience in history. France underscore this point (p. 855) when he explains that the recipients of Jesus’ diatribe were probably not blatant evildoers; further reading from Chapter 23 indicates that the Pharisees, for example, would walk hundreds of miles to make a single convert. Jesus’ textual audience was actually a very busy one in religious service. Their sin, according to France, was “their fundamental approach to religious life…the hypocrisy which is alleged is not so much conscious insincerity as a distorted perspective which makes them think that they are doing the will of God when they are missing the main point.” (p. 855)
The villains in Sunday’s Gospel are doing the right things for the wrong reasons and with faulty attitude. They love legality and order, and take considerable pride in their positions of authority. Jesus provides the proper perspective when he reminds his hearers that they are all humble servants before God the Father, and that mere rectitude means nothing as a substitute for brotherhood. The greatest among them is not the most learned but the servant of all. This teaching has great bearing upon Roman Catholicism, which for most of its history has endured a clerical caste. Curiously, Matthew 16:18 is often cited as the legal footing for a strong—even infallible--papacy, but models of Church leadership are tempered by Sunday’s Gospel text, which is not enamored by power and position.
Humble service in the imitation of Jesus, who came “not to be served but to serve” is the message of this text, but as our final weeks with Matthew will illustrate, although this text was originally directed at a set of religious leaders in time, its Gospel setting binds all readers in every generation to do the right for the right reason, i.e., in the honor of our One True Father.