One of the things that is easy to miss in this Gospel reading is that Jesus loves the scribes and Pharisees. So often, with the Gospels, as we become increasingly familiar with them and hopefully find ourselves aligning with Jesus (or at least think that we’re on “team Jesus”), we can hear and see how they’re often seen challenging and questioning Jesus. For over a month now, every one of our Sunday Gospels has been demonstrating this, and St. Matthew doesn’t mince words with us describing these Jewish leaders going off and “plotted how they might entrap Jesus.” It is obvious they are the protagonists (part of “team not Jesus”) in most of their interactions captured in scripture. Because He is “truth,” Jesus doesn’t back away from their challenges; He doesn’t soft-pedal or spin things to get along… Whether he’s calling-out their mistakes to their faces or pointing out their bad example as something to avoid as he does in today’s Gospel. There’s no sugar-coating going on when He says, “The scribes and the Pharisees… do not follow their example for they preach but do not practice…’ as he launches into this sermon where he’s warning of the dangers of hypocrisy. Because these individuals so often oppose Jesus and we hear these kinds of responses, we know Jesus is incredibly frustrated and justifiably angry with them. But we can’t forget why He spends as much time as He does with these debates. The reason He is having such a reaction to them is because He loves them. And when you love someone, and you know them, and you see what they can become, the potential that exists that they’re not living up to, and nothing you seem to say or do seems to be getting through to them, it’s maddening.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 5, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
Because at some point, at some time in the lives of these scribes and Pharisees, their lives had been consumed with love of God. They studied the scriptures. They had mourned what had happened to God’s Chosen People. They knew their story and their history backward and forwards: how God had set them apart to be a “light to all nations.” Not in some arrogant way that made them better than the rest of the nations, races, or peoples. But so that the world would see them as different, as remarkable not because of anything they themselves had done, but because of God Himself. And the other nations and peoples would be drawn to want to come to know the Lord God themselves and learn that they, too, were His people – made and fashioned by His own creative hand. But time and again, the Israelites would break their covenant with God, causing them to fail in their mission. Usually, that happens when they look at these other nations and peoples, think they are missing something by not being like them and end up ignoring their “chosen” status and try to be like everyone else.
We get one brief glimpse and example of that in the first reading from the Prophet Malachi – which was about 500 years before the Birth of Christ. The Jewish people had been conquered, exiled, and now had returned to Jerusalem. God once again demonstrated His Love and saved His people. And the people’s response was “meh.” The Jewish priests who were supposed to be leading the people in right worship had abused their roles and, in short, were cheating God by swapping out sacrifices the people were offering for what was unacceptable, keeping the better stuff for themselves. The people were watching and followed their awful examples in the disordered way they lived their lives, which resulted in further catastrophes for the Jewish people.
Fast-forward to the time of Jesus, and yes, the Jews had returned to their chosen land – sort of – as they were ultimately under Roman control and had a puppet installed as the “King of Israel.” They had their temple – sort of – as this wasn’t the original temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant, which filled that place with God’s very presence. Because of unfaithfulness and sin, the ark was lost, the temple had been destroyed and so this temple was a “rebuilt” one – that was only a shadow of the glorious original. While it was the place the Jews could come to worship and offer the necessary sacrifices, it was also a reminder of what they lost, what they longed for. And so they awaited the Messiah, who would be a true son of David, replacing their fake King. And they anticipated when that happened, the temple’s true glory – God’s very presence – would return.
So, the scribes and Pharisees had gotten maniacally focused on getting things right. If the failures of their ancestors had resulted in so much destruction, they would be the ones to fix it. Which, on the surface, is a good intention and noble desire. They look at all the commandments, the laws, and the rituals that God had prescribed and decide they would follow them better than they had ever been done before. In fact, they would go above and beyond. They start to think more is better. So if God had said they were to fast on a particular day, they would add a second or third one. God had given them prescriptions about Sabbath and Sabbath rest; they would be militantly watching and looking for the slightest infractions (according to their strictest of interpretations). They start to make more demands and put greater expectations on the people. And with that, there’s been a shift where, at one time, the scribes and Pharisees’ lives had been consumed with the Love of God, but now it has become something else. They enjoyed being in charge. They liked being the ones telling the others what to do – and blaming their failures for why things had not been set right. They didn’t even recognize how subtly things had entered in and changed them. They went from wanting God to save them, looking for His return, to believing that would be based and determined on what they did and got others to do. Falling for the same lie of the devil put forward to Adam and Eve millennia earlier – to be gods themselves. And having all of that layered and covered in the trappings and externals of their religious practices – sacred rituals from God Himself, passed down from their ancestors for generations and now being manipulated in this way.
That’s why Jesus runs hot so often at the scribes and Pharisees. There’s so much that they do know. They obviously have a lot of passion and energy. But it’s been co-opted, misdirected. Last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus reminds them of the “Shema,” which was the heart of the Torah: love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] your neighbor as yourself,” and one of the points a Catholic theologian made was that “Without Love, the law is cold. Without law, Love is mere emotion.” Jesus isn’t dismissing the laws or the commandments. He makes very clear today: “do and observe all things…” but – don’t follow their example. He’s frustrated with what has become of them in their lopsided approach to things. How cold they’ve become. Pope St. Leo the Great had this beautiful quote that came to mind: “You must learn to find God’s heart in Sacred Scripture, to hear God’s heartbeat.” The leaders don’t realize they don’t hear God’s heartbeat anymore, which is why they don’t see Love incarnate in Jesus before them.
This Gospel is here for us not to get the narrative straight in our minds, to celebrate we’re with the right team, and to shake our heads as we hear about those rascally Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests. The balance between law and Love has always been difficult to maintain. The fatal error is that the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests begin to believe it’s all in their control, in their power. That’s why Jesus is upset. Think about it, He doesn’t spend this much time and energy trying to win over the Romans, who are, in the end, His executioners. Not because He doesn’t care about them or love them. But because they hadn’t received God’s law and covenant. That won’t excuse them or their actions. But it helps explain what Jesus means when He says to whom much has been given, much is required. For these leaders, who say they wanted salvation, wanted the Messiah, wanted freedom – that they had so many of the externals correct and were failing so miserably, angers Jesus, but out of deep Love and deep disappointment.
For all of us who have heard and learned God’s word – it’s essential for us to “find God’s heart… and hear God’s heartbeat.” Humbly receiving His word and respond to it. To let it transform us so it can transform the world. For us to reject the pride, the arrogance, the sin of this world that so often pushes people to extremes.
Recently reading a book of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI, this story he shared has been on my mind for weeks and kept coming to mind with this Gospel. It was a story of how this great French author converted to Catholicism. It was early in the 20th Century, in the period between the world wars,. Pope Benedict recounts that this young man “was living…just as a man lives today, with the concessions that he makes for himself, no better and no worse, shackled to pleasures that are against God’s will, so that, on the one hand, he needs them in order to make life bearable and yet, at the same time, finds this same life unbearable after all. He looks for some way of escaping and strikes up relationships here and there. He goes to a great theologian… but it remains just an academic discussion, theoretical hair-splitting that does not help him make headway. He becomes acquainted with two great philosophers… [who] refer him to a Polish Dominican [priest]. He goes to him and again describes to him this fragmented life. The priest says to him: And do you approve of living this way? ‘No, of course not!’ You would like to live differently, then; you regret it? ‘Yes!’ And then something unexpected happens: the priest says to him: Kneel down. I absolve you.” This worldly author, famous and seemingly comfortable in every way, writes – Then I noticed deep down I had always waited for this moment, had always been waiting for there to be someone, sometime, who would say to me: Kneel down, I absolve you. I went back home, I was not a different man; no I had finally become myself again.”
The Pharisees, the scribes, and the religious leaders miss the numerous opportunities Jesus puts before them to become themselves again. But praise God, you and I still have time. Time for us to actualize the potential that Jesus sees in every one of us who tries to follow Him. To recognize our struggles with God’s law, His commandments; To humble ourselves and ask for His help; ask for His healing in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and experience His Love, His mercy. To find our true selves.