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11/5/23 Homily: Being that Example

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]

There are occasions where our Lord uses very harsh rhetoric against the scribes and Pharisees: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! Woe to you blind guides! Our Lord isn’t shy when he rebukes them.

But today’s passage isn’t one of those occasions. The context of his words this today is explicitly stated in the first line: Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples. Jesus talks about the scribes and Pharisees, but his message isn’t for them. It’s for the crowd and his disciples.

He tells them, “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.”

There’s a dichotomy between what they say and what they do. The teachings of scribes and Pharisees are authoritative, but their actions are not. Do the first, Jesus says, not the second. It sounds pretty straightforward. But there are two particular implications with this that can easily be overlooked.

The first is this: Regarding the scribes and Pharisees, the totality of their message—in word and example—cannot be embraced, but neither can the totality of their message be rejected. That’s what this means when Jesus says to do what they say, but not as they do. Don’t accept everything from them. But also, don’t reject everything.

This can be a challenge for those who might want to throw the baby out with the bath water, who might be inclined to reject Christianity altogether or dismiss Church doctrine altogether. You know the bigotry. Maybe you’ve even been on the receiving end of it at one point or another. It seems to be the last acceptable prejudice.

Think of some of the stereotypical objections to the faith: Why should I be a Christian when so many Christians do very bad things? Why should I be Catholic when so many priests have been found guilty of the most horrific crimes? How can the Church teach about spiritual matters when it seems to be very affluent in many cases? And so on.

Do you see how that works? The messenger is objectionable; therefore, his message should be rejected. Jesus today tells us: don’t do that. Rather, do as they say, but not as they do. Neither accept everything, nor reject everything.

Yes, it is difficult to receive a message when the messenger lacks credibility. Nevertheless, their actions don’t invalidate the truth they parrot. Authenticity of the message remains regardless of the lips that profess them.

This was actually an issue in the early Church with regard to the sacraments. Many had doubted whether or not a priest in mortal sin could validly confect the sacraments. Many people were doubting whether or not they were validly baptized, married, confirmed, and so on, if they had received the sacraments from a priest who was in mortal sin.

In short, the answer is yes. The term is called, ex opere operato, meaning, “from the work performed.” The sacraments are valid not due to the worthiness or faith of the priest, but from the sacrament as an instrument of God. The sacraments are considered independently of the merits of the minister or the recipient.

Even the most wicked priest can summon the Holy Spirit to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. With the words, “This is my body; this is my blood,” even the most unworthy priest can offer a worthy sacrifice.

Even a priest with the most hardened of hearts can be an instrument of God’s mercy. When he utters the words, “I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” God condescends to forgive the sins of the penitent. That was his promise to his apostles, “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven them; whoever’s sins you hold bound are held bound” (cf. Jn. 20:23).

That the first implication or nuance: the distinction between the message and the messenger.

The second nuance is that we can, almost subconsciously, seem to hoist the demands of righteousness upon others. We can be tempted to focus on the behavior of others, rather than our own. We are alerted to this whenever we catch ourselves saying to others or about others, with regard to ethics: “You should do this or that, or be that way or this way.”

But if we find ourselves doing that, then we become like the scribes and Pharisees. “…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.’”

Rather, in this same passage where our Lord condemns the bad example of the scribes and Pharisees, he encourages his followers to be of good example.

You already have it within you all that is necessary to live righteously, our Lord seems to say. “You have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” “You have one Father in heaven… you have one master, the Christ.”

What need have you for others’ example? Recall Ezekiel’s prophecy: I will cleanse you, says the Lord. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (cf. Ez. 36:25b-27).

Think of Isaiah’s prophecy: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim deliverance to the captives and freedom to prisoners. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory.

We who are baptized already have the divine presence within us to be our guide. Many of you may be familiar with that phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” What would you want to see in other Christians? How do you wish your priests were? Don’t look to them for example. Rather, be the example.

Again, our Lord’s words today were not to the scribes and Pharisees. He rebukes them elsewhere. His words today are for you and me. Live the teachings we’ve received, he tells us. Do not dismiss the gospel message simply because we don’t like the messenger. Rather, be the messenger.

Through the grace of the Mass, may our Lord continue to inspire each of us to live as true disciples of Jesus Christ.

The Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, icon, 6th century, unknown artist [Public Domain]


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