The readings today are challenging! They push us to examine our failures and wrongdoings. Although the harsh words are directed toward the priests of Jerusalem in the first reading, and toward the scribes and Pharisees in the gospel, they touch a nerve in us as well, because we are not strangers to the sins of cheating and hypocrisy. But the readings also offer us beautiful examples of humility and love, as shown in the psalm and the second reading. There is a sharp contrast between sin and virtue. The more we give in to sin, the less we can practice virtue; but when virtue is strong, it can overcome the power of sin.
In the gospel, we see in a sense the grand finale to the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. As the ongoing debate intensifies, Jesus denounces them for their hypocrisy and infidelity to their own religious heritage. He recognizes their authority as the legitimate successors of Moses, but he warns the people to do as these religious men say, not as they do. Jesus calls them out on the many ways in which they preach one thing and do another. He exposes them for who they really are – men who make their religious leadership more a show than an act of service to God. Puffed up with self-importance, they are imposters whose motivation is to receive admiration from people rather than approval from God. The picture that Jesus paints is not a pretty one, and his severe language underscores the seriousness of doing wrong in the name of right, of being driven by pride and desire for honor.
Just as his words must have severely stung, inflamed, and embarrassed the scribes and Pharisees, they make us uncomfortable too as we see in ourselves the all-too-familiar prideful desires and motivations in our own hearts. It is not only religious leaders who must scrutinize their motives and practices as they lead their flocks; all of us who say we are followers of Christ must be ever mindful of the pitfalls of pride and the seduction of human respect. How easy it is to want recognition and admiration from others; this is a natural human tendency. After all, the world tells us that success means being better than others, having more than they have, looking out for number one, and never showing weakness. Left to our own devices, these become the laws of our heart that dictate who we are and how we think and act in the world.
Jesus, however, teaches a radical departure from the ways of the world. Through the grace of God we are given the supernatural understanding and ability to want just the opposite of what the world tells us is important. Jesus makes it absolutely clear what this radical view of ourselves and others must be: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” His words show us that true greatness depends on one’s willingness to serve others. The virtue of humility was definitely missing in the scribes and Pharisees, and it is missing just as much in our culture today. Yet, humility is absolutely necessary if we are to truly love and follow Christ.
We have so many beautiful examples of humble servants in the saints of the Catholic Church! It is a virtue present in each of them who so selflessly served God and his people. St. Paul is a striking example of Jesus’ teaching that “the greatest among you will be the one who serves.” In the second reading, Paul shares with the Christian community of Thessalonica his sincere and pure motives in proclaiming the word of God to them. He wants them to be confident of the great care and concern he has for them. He also wants them to know that he is constantly praising God that they have received his message, “not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God at work within you who believe.” Paul has no expectation that he should be given any credit for bringing the good news; his only concern is that God is to be praised. He ministers to others from a deep understanding that his identity is in Jesus, and that everything he does is as a humble and grateful servant of God.
St. Paul’s spirit of service is contrasted against the wickedness of the priests of Jerusalem, to whom the prophet Malachi is sent to correct. The priests have been cheating God, taking the honor that belongs only to him, thinking that God would not notice. Malachi tells them otherwise, and gives them severe words of God’s condemnation for their actions. As in the gospel, we see that those who are in positions of authority are held to the highest standards to lead God’s people righteously. When they refuse to follow God, and purposely deceive, cheat, and “turn aside from the way,” they cause great harm to those who are in their care. The prophet tells them that there will be severe consequences because they have “made void the covenant of Levi.”
Again and again, we see that when we choose to turn our back on God, we risk everything. When we abdicate our responsibility to be Christian examples to others, we risk everything. When pride rather than humility drives our thoughts and actions, we risk everything. Jesus gives us the antidote to save ourselves from these sinful ways. Jesus is the antidote. He shows us the way to be and the way to go through life. It is the way of service and humility: the Way of Jesus.
What motivates me to serve others? In what ways do I seek my own glory? How can I grow in humility?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.