“Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do…” (Matthew 23:1)
Today’s gospel and first reading certainly can make priests, bishops and any professional religious people, clerical or lay, squirm and at least do some honest examination of their words and behavior once in a while. The prophet Malachi directly addressed the priests of his time, “You have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.” Even worse, he says that they have caused many to stumble by their instruction. And Malachi appeals to their communal tradition when he accuses them of profaning the covenant of their ancestors.
Things seem not to have changed much in the time of Jesus. Some of his harshest words were directed to religious professional people. Today’s reading is the beginning of a section of the “Woes” addressed to the scribes and pharisees. He recognizes their authority when he says “Do whatever they teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do.” I have heard many an Irish mother tell their children the same thing about their priests. Jesus warns against calling a leader “rabbi” for he alone is the teacher and we are all brothers and sisters. And call no one “father”, for we have one Father in heaven. And do not call them “instructors” for we have one instructor who is Christ. Maybe Jesus is exaggerating a bit for we certainly have not heeded these words of warning. Jesus’ final words in this gospel certainly are apropos for today when he praises humility as an important attribute.
We have an important reminder in these words. All of us are insecure. We struggle to do our best. It is so easy to mistake the foundation of our lives in the accruement of power; we think we are doing good for others. Likewise, possessions are often a substitute for the honest, humble living of our faith. To be really one with Christ in all his ways is our only real power. “I live, not I, but Christ lives in me” Paul wrote elsewhere.
Today’s second reading, a letter from Paul to the Thessalonians, gives us the image of the real disciple who leads and inspires the flock of Christ. He writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” He goes on to say about himself and his fellow missionaries that “we were determined to share not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” He praises them not for heeding what he says but for accepting the word of God. This is real power!