All of these conversations in St. Matthew’s Gospel serve to highlight the rising tensions between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day, and in that way set the stage for his eventual betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. But they also are instructive to us, showing us the reason how and why Jesus took issue with these different groups of religious leaders. He didn’t do so as a rebel or a troublemaker, which is how they viewed him. Rather, he did so as the Messiah, the heir to the Davidic throne, and even more fundamentally, as the Son of God. When we hear Jesus debating with the scribes and Pharisees, we’re not just hearing esoteric debates about Jewish law. We’re hearing the same God, who once gave the Law to his people in the desert at Sinai, now expounding it and interpreting it with human voice.
In today’s Gospel, what Jesus takes issue with is that these Jewish leaders have not matched words with actions. Though apparently devout and religiously observant, the Pharisees and scribes have failed to practice what they preached, and have instead made religious observance more difficult for everyone else. Jesus’s criticisms here harken back to the words of the prophet Malachi in our first reading, who decried the Temple priests for leading the people astray by failing to offer proper sacrifice. The best kind of sacrifice, just like the best kind of religious devotion, is the one that seeks to honor God by also caring for those most precious to him: the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed. The Pharisees and scribes have failed to do this, exalting themselves instead. Jesus will show them, and us, the meaning of true devotion, true service in the humility of his Cross.
This Gospel is a challenging one, especially for those of us who occupy some leadership capacity in the Church. Power is to be used for service, but there is always the danger to misuse it, and to serve oneself instead of others. This Gospel is a good examination of conscience for priests and pastors, but also for parish employees, council members, and volunteers of every stripe. We have to ask ourselves, are our words matched by our actions? Is our work aimed at humble service to those in need, or at something else? And perhaps finally, is there someone or some group that I might be overlooking, whom the Lord might be asking me to attend to?
|Prayer (1882) by Luigi Nono|
One group who is very much in need of our help but who might not immediately jump to our minds are the souls in purgatory. We sometimes call them the “holy souls,” because they died in friendship with God and are assured of eventually reaching heaven. But we also refer to them as the “poor souls” because they are not in heaven yet, and while in the state of purification that we call purgatory, they cannot help themselves. They are dependent upon us – our prayers and sacrifices – to call upon God’s mercy to cleans them of their faults and finally make them ready to see him face to face. Most of us know that it is part of our Catholic tradition to pray for the dead – the faithful departed, who were our friends, loved ones, and even others unknown to us who are in need of our prayers. But we should ask ourselves: do I really do that? Are my good intentions and pious thoughts actually matched by action – by prayers, sacrifices, and supplications to God on behalf of those in purgatory? This month of November is a chance for us to redouble our efforts in this regard.
Friends, Jesus wants all in his Church to humble ourselves now so as to one day be exalted. While on earth, we do this through loving service, including by our prayer and supplication for the poor, holy souls of purgatory. Perhaps one day we may ourselves require the prayers of those whom we aided, by God’s grace, to reach his kingdom. As we prepare for this Eucharistic sacrifice, may we turn our hearts and minds to the humble Lord who meets us there, that he may see our humble prayers and praises now and so one day raise us to his glory.