[Homily: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Nov 4, 2017, based on Mt. 23:1-12]
We sometimes forget. God means well with us. And so, very mysteriously, he shares himself with us. By “mysteriously,” I mean, “difficult for us to understand why he does so at all.” He shares himself with us in creation, in making the heavens and the earth, the sun and the stars, the night and the day, the mountains and the forests, the fresh-water streams and the flowers. He shares himself with us in one another: in our children, in our parents, in our siblings, in one another. God means well with us. And sometimes we forgot. Sometimes we no longer notice the drama of sunrise, nor the mystery of sunset, nor the unfathomable riches we have in his creation and in one another. Sometimes we forget. God spoke a Word. It was a word of love. It was a word spoken to us in truth. And in its genuineness, it was a word made flesh that dwells among us, that invites us constantly to recall that God loves us
God means well for us, even when in the depths of his love he shows his anger. In our Gospel he is angry at the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees. In Jewish culture, these are the professional men of religion – the priests, preachers, religious and even pious laypersons of our era – who should have made the way to God easier, but in their pride, superstitiousness, and contempt for true religion, didn’t. He was angry with them because for all their learning and pious posturing, they made the way to God more difficult. With their wide phylacteries and tassels on their garments, they were all for show. With their fancy titles and religious power, they forgot they ought to have been mediators of God’s love, and not God, nor rivals of God.
Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. He taught, “Seek first the Kingdom of God…”; he taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done….” He taught us to forgive: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He taught us the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He taught: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He taught us the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead. He declared, “Whatever you do to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do to me.” He preached the Kingdom of God, and made acts of compassion to one’s neediest neighbors a necessary criterion of entry into the Kingdom of God. And because he was true to his word, he was crucified and killed.
So he means well with us in wanting us to be genuine Christians, and not just pretentious hypocrites similar in spirit to the scribes and the Pharisees whom he called “whitened sepulchers, but inside full of dead men’s bones.” He did not want us to be pretenders, wearing our Christianity as masks for people to see, masks however that cover unbelief, indecision, sin, shame and weakness. They say that they are Christian, they act as if they were Christian, they go through all the motions of religious compliance, or even of extraordinary religious heroism, donating great sums of money to the Church, but inside they are just full of themselves. By their fruit, you shall know them.
Genuine Christianity, Christianity with integrity, in my view, is not something you achieve. It is something that is gifted. You can pray for it; you must pray for it. But beware of the prayer of the Pharisee. The despised tax-collector prayed at the back of the temple and simply said, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” He was much closer to the Kingdom of God than the Pharisee in the temple who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like these other people – swindlers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector! I fast twice a week and pay tithes on all that I receive…” His was like praying, “Thank God, Lord, that I am so humble!” “Thank God, Lord, that I am so self-less!” “Thank God, Lord, that you really ought to be thanking me!” The trouble with hypocrites is that their hypocrisy becomes their way of life, the way of their entitlement, their actors’ mask that their persistence in acting it out actually makes them believe it of themselves, even when their lie has begun to harm people horribly. That is true I guess of people whose hypocrisy allows them to abuse children, or to abuse the poor. They are Christians called to love one another as Jesus does, they are even eminent leaders of the Church, but secretly they abuse children. They are Christians, but in their business decisions they abuse the poor. They are Christians, but in their political decisions, they are corrupt. They are Christians, but they cannot speak a word of forgiveness to a spouse, nor listen with compassion to a son or daughter in need.
God means well with us. He gives us the joy of our families, the challenges of our professions, and the trials of our life situations. Life can get so complicated. Sometimes, even as we battle life’s problems by slipping into hypocrisy, we need to get away to listen to God in the quiet of the twilight, or in the night air beneath the stars, and to find God not in the brightness that blinds us, nor in the black and white that shape our genial rationalizations, but in the shades of darkness where he is is still present … even where things are blurred, where we are frightened and vulnerable, and all is malabo. “Even in this dark valley of darkness, Lord, you are there with me with your crook and your staff. With these you give me comfort” (Ps. 23.4). To the child terrified by the fury of a hurricane that asked, “why are there hurricanes?” Pope Francis pointed to the Cross. To us who ask, “Why are there hypocrites?” or, more painfully, “Why am I a hypocrite, even when I hate it?” the God who means well with us may point to the Cross, the truth of God’s Word, the integrity of God’s love, who embraces us warmly, even when his arms are nailed on the Cross…that we may be saved. God means well. Maybe the first step away from hypocrisy is to talk to a friend, even the Friend on the Cross. Contrary to our compulsions, we do not need to pray the prayer of the Pharisee. It is the prayer of the publican that is acceptable, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is the God-Man on the Cross who saves.