The Message is What Matters, Not Prestige

Nov 5, 2017: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Malachi 1:14–2:2, 8-10
Psalms 131:1, 2, 3
First Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13
Matthew 23:1-12
_________________________________________________________

In today’s readings, we’re reminded that our receptivity to a message should not be determined by our esteem or scorn for the messenger, but by whether that message is true. When we are the messengers, we must also remember that anything we do to contradict the message hinders even the truest things we try to share.

In today’s First Reading, the Lord laments the fact that His priests are playing favorites instead of carrying out the office entrusted to them. Priests are held to a high moral standard, even today, and when they don’t live up to it, their lifestyle sends the wrong message and imparts the false teaching. Our Lord in today’s Gospel does not criticize the Pharisees so much for what they teach as much as for what they do. They don’t do what they teach. Being revealed as a hypocrite is one of the most detestable things imaginable. A hypocrite transmits two contradictory messages and, even when one of them is true, he clouds the ability to get to the truth. The Lord today warns the priests who are showing partiality and hypocrisy that their blessings will become curses: when the truth is revealed about them an apparent blessing is revealed a lie for everyone to see.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul paints another portrait of a minister of God: a humble, caring, and loving messenger. Humility is about speaking the truth, no matter what the consequences. Paul’s actions show his sincerity in holding himself up as an example not only of a shepherd of souls but of any believer. He has put the Lord’s invitation to be meek and humble of heart into practice, seeing his ministry as one akin to a nursing mother. Like the mother of a newborn, he not only nourishes them on the Gospel but offers them his very self. His motivations are not selfish: he cares for them because he loves them. Unlike the burdensome Pharisees Our Lord decries in today’s Gospel, he doesn’t seek to be a burden to anyone. In Acts, it is mentioned that he practiced his livelihood (tent making) while carrying out his ministry (see Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-35). He didn’t seek out money but was grateful when it was offered to help him help others (see Philippians 4:14-16). It wasn’t about the money. If any servant of Our Lord were just in it for the money they would probably change careers (see Paul’s “boast” in 2 Corinthians 11:16–33 if you want a job description). Paul received satisfaction from knowing that through his example the Thessalonians truly believed that he had shared the word of God with them and put it into practice as a result. No servant of Our Lord could be happier if he helped someone in this way.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord makes an admonition to the disciples that for us has become an essential rule of thumb: practice what you preach. He also reminds us that with prestige and recognition come expectations. All believers are brothers because they all share one Father in Heaven, and they are all disciples because they follow the teachings of one Master, Christ. Through baptism, we’ve all received an equal dignity in the eyes of God, and when any member of the Church forgets that, other members of the Church suffer through their bad example. At the same time, Our Lord does not deny that the scribes and Pharisees whom He is criticizing have an authority that comes from Moses that is to be respected. Today there are some who are tempted to discard the preaching because certain preachers do not practice it. That’s not what Jesus teaches us. It’s sad when a preacher gets in the way of the message by putting himself first, but if he is preaching what has been handed down to us from Christ through the apostles and their successors, it is still a teaching that is necessary for us, because it is true. That’s the ultimate criterion for accepting anyone’s message: whether it is true or not. Prestige or infamy don’t change what’s true. The core lesson today to bishops, priests, and deacons is not to let themselves get in the way of communicating the message: it’s not about ego, titles, or honors, but, instead, about communicating the message Our Lord has entrusted to the Church’s pastors through the centuries. This is a lesson for every believer: through our bad example we can hinder the spread of the Gospel, the message everyone needs to hear and believe. Our Lord also reminds us today that with prestige and recognition comes expectation: the expectations we have, but also the expectations of others. When we seek recognition or prestige for their sake, climbing the social ladder, trying to get ahead in life, etc., at some point, we come to the realization, if we’re fortunate, that we’re milking past glories instead of doing the things that’d merit recognition. That’s vainglory. Even if we don’t realize it, we can be sure that others do. Jesus puts us on guard against resting on our laurels, as some scribes did, who focused on maintaining and increasing their prestige instead of helping people to understand God’s word, which is what they were trained to do, and what was expected of them. If we focus on giving the best of ourselves for the sake of others, receiving recognition for it or not doesn’t matter to us. This is a healthy way of keeping our accomplishments from getting to our heads.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, he coined the expression “doublethink” to describe people who embraced both poles of a contradiction as true. For example, “war is peace.” In his novel this was used by the Party to eventually destroy the people’s capacity for independent thought, making them easier to control. In 1984, for example, the Ministry of Peace was in charge of declaring and waging war, and the Ministry of Love was responsible for administering punishments and torture. We didn’t need Orwell to invent this concept: we call it sin. Sin is embracing two contradictory truths in our lives, and we often try to ignore the contradiction hoping it will go away. Sometimes we think we can hide one and put on a brave and noble face while we’re working the other out, but ultimately our actions betray us. The way to cut through a contradiction in our lives is to seek the truth, and, in the case of sin, the truth that cuts through the contradiction is the Gospel.

It takes a lot of courage these days to share the Gospel, even when we do back it up with our Christian example. This shouldn’t discourage us. Even Our Lord faced people who detested what He was trying to say (“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”—John 6:60). Some believers take exception to Church teaching on a specific issue, but the fundamental question is whether what the Church teaches is true. When the Church presents us with a difficult teaching on faith or morals, our first response should be faith, not criticism. We don’t believe it is an opinion, but, instead, the truth. In faith, we know that Our Lord entrusted His teaching on faith and morals to the Apostles, and that has been handed down to us. If we have a difficulty with that teaching, we must first take it to Him in prayer and then ask Him to help us understand, not reject the messenger.

Leave a Reply