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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?(P) The word of the Lord.
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)
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)
O Israel, hope in the Lord, both now and forever. (R)
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.(P) The word of the Lord.
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."(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
A mother had taught her three children to close their eyes during grace before meals. One day as they were praying, the mother called out to the youngest child who was under 3 years old and said, "You must close your eyes; we are praying now." "How do you know that I don't, Mom?" the child responded. The moral of this story is that when we set standards for our households and our children, and for others, it goes without saying that we ourselves must first live by the standards we set.
The Gospels record many confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish religious groups of His day. They often put forward questions with the intent of trapping Jesus into saying something wrong which they could use against him. We have read some of them in the last couple of weeks. For instance, you may remember the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to set a trap for Jesus with a query about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus responded by saying, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God", Matthew (22:21). What Jesus meant here was that if they, as Caesar's subjects, use the coins imprinted with his image, then it was their duty to submit to his demands, and pay taxes to him, and at the same time give to God His due because they are made in the image and likeness of God. At the end of the story, Matthew writes that they were amazed at His way of teaching; they left him alone and went away.
Thereafter, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection or life after death, approached Jesus with a question concerning a childless widow who had been married, in succession, to the brothers of her deceased husband. They referred to the teaching in Deuteronomy (25:5-6) on levirate marriage which ensures the continuation of the lineage of the deceased man and asked Jesus, "In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife she will be, since the seven were married to her", Matthew (22:23-24). Jesus quickly pointed out their ignorance of the Scriptures or the power of God, and showed them that:
And then, last week, we read about a scholar of the Scriptures, representing the Pharisees, who came and asked Jesus to identify the greatest commandment. In response, Jesus quoted from the book of Deuteronomy "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind", Deuteronomy (6:6), and from Leviticus "Love your neighbour as yourself", Leviticus (9:18). That is, they were to love God with the whole of their being and, love their neighbours as they, in fact, loved themselves.
Today's gospel is a part of Jesus' final instructions before his arrest, crucifixion and death. This time, Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples about the spiritual failure of the Scribes and Pharisees who saw themselves as righteous.
Jesus began by saying something surprising to the crowds and to His disciples. He said, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they will tell you...", Matthew (23:2-3).
A "seat" here refers to a position of authority. The scribes were lawyers and the Pharisees were religious teachers in Jesus' time. Their job was simply to study the law and interpret its application to daily life. The "law" refers to the "Law of Moses" or the covenants that God made with His people during the time of Moses. It consisted of many ceremonies, rituals, and symbols, which frequently reminded people of their duties and responsibilities. They have taken their "seat on the chair of Moses" means that they hold an office of authority to teach the doctrine and interpret and administer the law.
Hence, Jesus enjoined his followers to show due respect to them by obedience to their preaching. The respect was due to the Scribes and Pharisees; not because of their conduct, but because they were seated in Moses' chair. It is important to note here that, at that moment, Jesus did not advocate for His followers to ignore what the Pharisees and Scribes were teaching, even though He had branded them hypocrites. That would not be in keeping with God's command to "respect" and "honour" spiritual authority. Instead, He exhorted his followers to observe and do whatever they are told by them but not to follow their example.
Jesus went on to say why they were such bad examples. He said:
They tie up heavy burdens and load them on the shoulders of the people, but they do not even lift a finger to move them, Matthew (23:4b). This phrase is derived from the custom of loading animals. The load or burden is bound up and then laid on an animal. Jesus used this image to describe how the Pharisees and the Scribes, in addition to 613 Jewish laws, had introduced and imposed upon their followers, innumerable traditions, minute regulations and prescriptions, but would not allow themselves to undergo the least of those severities.
Clearly, Jesus denounced not the Law nor any legitimate rite and ceremony of the Law, or even immemorial traditions, but specifically the severe enforcement by men who regarded only the letter of the laws and had lost the spirit.
They "widen their phylacteries" and "lengthen their tassels", Matthew (23:6). "Phylacteries" were little boxes, on which copies of portions of Scripture, or written prayers were stored, and bound to arms and hands, or onto foreheads. In doing this, they were seeking to apply literally what is said in the book of Deuteronomy "God said to the Israelites - these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as front lets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates", Deuteronomy (6:6-9).
Ordinarily, Jewish men would wear these "phylacteries" during prayers. But some Scribes and Pharisees would continue to wear them in public to show their religious devotion. And they would even make the phylacteries "broad", that is, large and easy to see, in order to show that they were loaded-up with a lot of the passages of Scripture and a lot of prayers.
In addition, they also "lengthened their tassels". A "tassel" is a group of short threads or ropes held together at one end. In Biblical times, in obedience to the commandment of God to make "tassels" on the corners of their garments, the men would attach the tassels to the four corners of a tunic that was customarily worn, Numbers (15:37-41). These tassels, dangling down from their outer garment were to serve as constant reminders to faithfully follow the commandments of God in daily life. But the Scribes and Pharisees made their tassels ostentatiously long, in order to give everyone the impression that they were more devoted to the law than everyone else.
They also expected special attention to be given to them: the first row in the synagogues, places of honour at banquets, and special honorific titles such as "Rabbi".
After stating the customs of the Pharisees and Scribes, Jesus proceeded to give his own disciples a lesson in humility. He urged them, "As for you, do not be called Rabbi, do not be called Master", Matthew (23:8-12). That is, they are not to be eager for such distinctions. They should not be ambitious of any such title, fond of it, or be affected by it or be elated with it, should it be given them; nor look upon themselves as people of power and authority over others; as though having dominion over others' faith, a power to make laws for others, impose these in a magisterial way, and bind others at pleasure, as the Pharisees and the Scribes did.
Finally, He said to them that the greatest is the one who serves. This was an important teaching to his followers because they were often contending about this among themselves as to who should be the greatest.
What is the message for us?
Some people tend to think that the teaching of Jesus such as, "they preach but they do not practice", are applicable solely to priests and preachers, who are seen as preaching so piously yet live so badly. But this teaching is not restricted to preachers. It is for all - parents, catechists, teachers, priests alike - those who think they can help others by setting standards for them yet they themselves don't feel the need to keep them and for those who conveniently forget their faults and point out someone else's.
So, we must be sure that we preach nothing to others that we aren't prepared to apply equally to ourselves. There should be a genuine effort to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and to conform our lives to it. While practice will probably never reach the high standard of God's will in every detail, there must be a wholehearted effort to embrace God's will in life.
We do not have to hide our devotion to and love of God, our faith and good works. Far from it! Jesus Himself said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven", Matthew (5:16). We are to let our light so shine so that more and more people may glorify the Father, rather than glorify us. We, Catholics, have a variety of ways to show our devotion to or love of God. We attend Mass, pray the rosary or do the Stations of the Cross, wear a religious medal or scapular, or say a novena, use pictures, statues, images and icons in our churches or in our homes.
But when we encounter ridicule and insults from others because of our faith and religious practices, we tend to hide our faith behind this idea, that it is a very personal thing. Of course, we must be careful not to use religious medals or statues in a superstitious way. We must not worship them. Rather we must use them as mere reminders to stay close to God and to try to imitate the sanctity and holiness of the saints.
And at the same time, let our devotion, praise, and worship and good works to our neighbours be sincere, pure, and motivated by a love for God, with an eye to God's glory always.(P) Amen.
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