In this Gospel we see Jesus under fire. In turn, He speaks sternly to the religious leaders of Israel accusing the scribes and Pharisees of seeking the glory that rightly belongs to God. In their misguided zeal for religion, they sought respect and honor for themselves rather than for God.
Jesus raises three objections. They do not practice what they preach, they adopt a very narrow and burdensome interpretation of the Torah, and they seek public acknowledgment of their presumed spiritual superiority. Instead of allowing any relaxation, they “built a fence around the Law.” They fail to realize the truth that when religion becomes a depressing affair of burdens and prohibitions, individualistic dictums or endless rote prayers it ceases to be true religion. Jesus condemns the lack of compassion of religious leaders, evidenced in their unwillingness to apply laws in a way that would make obedience less oppressive. By contrast, Jesus says: “My yoke is easy; my burden is light and I will give you rest.”
The Pharisees Jesus is speaking to liked to be seated in places of privilege, prized seats on the left and right of their host. You remember the request posed by the mother of James and John? “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
The Pharisees preferred to be addressed as “Rabbi.” They liked to be called “Father”, to be known as the fathers of the faith. They overlooked that respect has to be earned. However, in spite of their personal failings, Jesus recognizes that the scribes and Pharisees are stewards of a great spiritual treasure. He teaches respect for them for their role as official teachers and interpreters of the Torah. Jesus demands that his disciples honor the office that these men occupy and to do what they teach, at least insofar as their teachings accord with the Torah. Jesus taught, honored and applied two principles: reverence and respect i.e. reverence for God, the name of God and God’s due. Jesus modeled respect for one’s parents and for a person’s life, the other’s possessions, and good name, lessons sadly lacking in many segments of our society today.
Jesus’ criticism was mainly a warning to future Christian leaders about possible abuses of authority in their ministry. His words are a strong invitation and challenge to render humble, loving service without expecting honor or rewards. Benedict echoes this attitude in The Rule in the opening lines of Chapter 7 on humility recalling the words of Scripture: “Whoever exalts themselves shall be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves shall be exalted.” Jesus and Benedict remind us that service, not status, is the measure of a true Christian. It’s not how many servants we have, but how many persons we serve.
In today’s society where smear campaigning and negative comparative advertising are rampant, it is easy to unconsciously assimilate this style of language and attitude as acceptable. Jesus may not have used these words but remember what you learned as a child: “When you point one finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.” Beware of being the “pot” calling the “kettle” black. The Gospel message reminds us that whatever we are and have is not simply a birthright, but a gift given to us by our loving God. Hence, let us use everything we are and have for the greater honor and glory of God.
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB
Have a good week.