Malachi 1:14B-2:2, 8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13
In the Gospel today Jesus begins a series of warnings against the practices of the Pharisees of his day. These were the religious leaders of Jesus’s time, and what is most interesting about how he handles them is that he does not tell his followers to disobey them. On the contrary, he says that whatever they tell you “observe and do it” but don’t follow their example. In making this kind of a statement, Jesus is allowing for the reality that religious leaders are not perfect people, indeed that religious leaders are sinners in need of forgiveness, and in that regard those who are religious leaders are no different than anyone else, because we are all sinners who have need of God’s forgiveness. Knowing this, Jesus makes it clear that religious authority which comes from God is to be heeded and obeyed, even if those in whom the authority is placed are themselves guilty of the worst sorts of sin.
Jesus’ opening words in the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, which we hear this weekend, serve as the perfect reply to those people, whatever their religious background might happen to be, who question whether they should participate in church activities or in the things of God because Christians-and especially Christian leaders-are hypocritical sinners, and sometimes their hypocrisy is not even hidden, but lay open for the world to see. That was certainly true of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, their knowledge of the law was exceptional. Many of them were zealous in their faith and belief, but no small number of them were concerned that others keep God’s law as it was understood by the Scribes and Pharisees, but they themselves were not often so perfect as they expected others to be. Yet Jesus is clear… Observe and do what the religious leaders tell you to do, but if you know that they are living in hypocrisy you do not follow their example.
Many good commentators and theologians have said that this passage is the scriptural basis for the Church’s teaching that the worthiness (or lack thereof) of a minister of the sacraments has no impact on the validity of those sacraments. Merely because religious leaders are not living according to the laws of God or the teachings of the Church themselves does not mean that those laws and those teachings are not valid, or that the Church which teaches them does not have divine authority. We know that the leaders in the Church would not always be perfect because even Peter denied Jesus three times, and even the other Apostles who history deems as faithful ran when the time came to stand up with Jesus near the end of his life. This reality did not dim the divine authority that he gave the Apostles and their successors when he established the Church. It is a reality of our faith that leadership in the Church, whether that is clerical leadership or lay leadership, is placed into the hands of imperfect people. That may be something to remember the next time someone tells you that they won’t come to the house of God because everyone is a hypocrite. Jesus himself knew that, and he knew what people’s perception of that hypocrisy would be, and he even understood that oftentimes people’s perceptions were not far from reality.
Does all of that mean that Jesus is okay with hypocrisy in our personal faith, or hypocrisy within the leadership of the Church? His very next words tell us that the opposite is true. Rather than accepting hypocrisy, Jesus puts forth a model of servant leadership. In the servant leadership that Jesus teaches, the greatest leaders will serve other people. Those who exalt themselves, or attempt to exalt themselves will be humbled, or some very good translations render it “abased,”or literally brought low. While those who are willing to humble themselves will be exalted, or lifted high.
How concerned is Jesus about hypocrisy? In the very next verse after the conclusion of today’s Gospel, Jesus began a diatribe against religious hypocrites that lasted in our modern translation for the remainder of the entire chapter. Jesus’s words may be the most biting critique of religious hypocrisy that has ever been spoken or written, and I personally believe that they are so important that I would invite everyone to go home today and read the remainder of the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, and ask ourselves how we might improve our own lives so that we do not merit the kind of condemnation from the Lord that he gave the religious leaders of his own day. I find that I am constantly reminding myself of His words, because as a person who is ordained in the Church I believe that the standard He sets is the one that anyone perceived as a leader in the Church will be judged by.
I would be remiss if I did not address the favorite verse that most evangelicals and fundamentalists like to quote to Catholics, which we have heard in today’s Gospel, Matthew 23:9: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” First of all, let’s deal with the obvious reality… Jesus could not have meant that we were literally not allowed to call any man father, because if that were the case we could have call our own fathers by the titles which are rightfully theirs, and honoring our father and mother is in fact one of the Ten Commandments. This commandment doesn’t exclude calling our own ancestors “father” either. Stephen called Abraham “our father” (cf. Acts 7:2) and Paul calls Isaac “our father” (cf. Rom. 9:10). Paul speaks of Timothy as “my true child in the faith,” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2) and if Timothy was Paul’s son “in the faith,” than Paul was Timothy’s father “in the faith.”
So what exactly did Jesus mean when he said “call no man on earth your father?” In Jesus’s time people were very tempted to exalt religious leaders, who are simply mere mortals, to a status of spiritual fatherhood which belongs only to God, giving that singular person an authority that did not come from God and which God did not give to them. People in Jesus’ time were keen to ascribe to religious leaders powers that they did not have and heavenly authority they did not hold, and it was even common to ascribe an authority to some leaders equal to God’s divine authority. The Church’s authority does come from Christ and that authority has been handed down to us from the Apostles, that is what both history and the teaching of the Church tell us. However, the Church does not ask us to ascribe to our leaders any authority that God Himself does not give to them, and every ordained man in the Church from Pope Francis down to a lowly parish deacon takes an oath of fidelity before they can be ordained that they will be faithful stewards of the Gospel message handed down from Jesus through the Apostles and their successors. The Church is just as Jesus intended her to be, the Body of Christ, His representative in this world. The Church is filled with imperfect and often sinful people, but as Jesus said, he came to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous. That is why the Church is truly, in the words of the Holy Father, “a hospital for sinners.” (cf. Matthew 9:10-13)