Father Donald Senior, CP

Nov. 5: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Pious frauds

Mal 1:14-2:2, 8-10; Ps 131:1, 2, 3; 1 Thes 2:7-9; 13; Mt 23:1-12

Many moons ago I made my novitiate in the barren fields of St. Paul, Kansas, the location of our Passionist “boot camp.” Our novice master, ordinarily a very kind and soft-spoken man, would get worked up when in his instructions to us he hit on the topic of what he called “pious frauds” — religious who went around looking extremely pious but behind closed doors could be mean and selfish. (I am reminded of Pope Francis’ comment about some priests who always “look like they just came from a funeral”). The subject of “pious frauds” seems to have agitated Jesus as well.

The Gospel today is from Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, one of Jesus’ strongest condemnations of his opponents for being hypocritical, in this case, the “scribes and Pharisees.” Jesus shows respect for their official role as religious leaders — they have “taken their seat on the chair of Moses” and “therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.”  But “do not follow their example!” Why? Because they do all of their religious acts in order “to be seen.”  

They preach but do not practice. They lay heavy burdens on people’s shoulders but “will not lift a finger to move them.” They wear their ostentatious clerical robes and “love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces.” Jesus’ disciples are not to be like that in any way — avoiding titles of honor, seeking to be a “servant” of others, not seeking to be exalted but “humbling” oneself.

Some words of caution are in order. Too often in the past, Christians have used Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees as a rationale for anti-Semitism — branding all Jews of every age as hypocritical and arrogant. This is a terrible distortion of the Gospel. 

We can forget that Jesus himself, Mary his mother, all the apostles and most of the first generations of Christians were, in fact, Jews. Without them and their faithful handing on of Christian tradition we would never have known the beauty of our faith.  

Besides that, this challenging discourse of Jesus is not directed at the scribes and Pharisees but at Jesus’ own disciples. The “you” addressed throughout the discourse are Christians, urging them not to become “pious frauds” themselves.

Scholars believe that Matthew’s Gospel intensified the sharpness of Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders because of a dispute with other Jewish factions at the time of the Gospel’s composition. (Matthew’s own Christian community was made up mainly of Jewish Christians). In fact, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a lay reform movement whose aims were in many ways similar to those of Jesus himself. 

But there is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth in his original setting could speak in strong prophetic tones when he confronted abuse of any kind. In doing so, he was stepping into a long-standing biblical (and Jewish) prophetic tradition, such as we have in the first reading for this Sunday from the prophet Malachi who scorches the temple priests for their bad behavior and their false teaching, causing “many to falter.” All through the Bible there are moments when people of integrity stood up and challenged those in positions of authority because they were abusing their power and using their prestige as a mask for their hypocrisy. 

We find a contrast with this kind of false leadership in Paul’s words to his young church at Thessaloniki in today’s second reading. Paul reminds them that he was “gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.” He worked with his own hands to support himself when he was with them “working day and night in order not to burden any of you.”  

Paul could be passionate and demanding but he was thoroughly genuine and spoke from the heart with true conviction. No pious fraud here.
We live at a time when authentic and transparent leadership — leadership with integrity — is desperately needed at all levels of our society. The words of Jesus and of the prophets before him remind us of this vital lesson.