Only the Humble Shall be Exalted
Gospel Reflection for November 5, 2023 - Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples,
Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses.
All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not.
For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men's shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them.
And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge their fringes.
And they love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues,
And salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi.
But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master; and all you are brethren.
And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven.
Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, Christ.
He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant.
And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 DRA)
In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Our Lord gives a more direct response to the Pharisees and other authorities who had been challenging and attempting to trap Him in the preceding chapters of St. Matthew's memoir. As a rabbi, indeed the Rabbi as He teaches here, Christ used the methods of the rabbis in His defenses, including parables. In this passage, He employs the device of hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point more strikingly, as He does many other times in His ministry. He also uses a technique more peculiar to God, both in the Old and New Testaments, and one which is more fundamental to His overall message: paradox. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord." (Is 55:8) "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men… For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God". (1 Cor 1:25, 3:19)
As with the Beatitudes and the Cross, in which the curses of the Old Testament and the conditions of life which most would see as tragic and bitter become the marks of true happiness and the path to salvation, here Christ shows that true discipleship in His new Kingdom of Heaven is not what the world, or even many of His zealous Jewish contemporaries, would expect. Those who will sit on thrones of judgment, like the apostles, must be merciful; those who wish to teach must submit to Christ, the one true Teacher; those who claim spiritual or familial fatherhood must imitate the source and reality of Fatherhood in God; and those who will be the priests and spiritual leaders of the Kingdom must wear the vestments and titles of their offices not for self-aggrandizement or worldly honor but in humble service to Christ and His flock. As Origen taught,
Christ’s disciple loves the uppermost place indeed, but at the spiritual banquet, where he may feed on the choicer morsels of spiritual food, for, with the Apostles who sit upon twelve thrones, he loves the chief seats, and hastes by his good works to render himself worthy of such seats; and he also loves salutations made in the heavenly market-place, that is, in the heavenly congregations of the primitive. (Catena Aurea)
Contrary to the objections of many, particularly Protestants, Christ is not condemning the title of 'father', either for priests or parents; neither is He proscribing anyone from becoming a teacher or receiving titles of respect, just as He did not literally mean that we should despise our family members, cut off our limbs if they cause us to sin or refrain from doing housework and only spend our time in prayer, like St. Mary Magdalene. “It should be noted, that He does not forbid those to whom this belongs by right of rank to be saluted in the forum, or to sit or recline in the highest room; but those who unduly desire these things, whether they obtain them or not, these He enjoins the believers to shun as wicked.” (Rabanus, Catena Aurea) All of these are examples of rabbinic hyperbole, given in order to cut through and correct the presumption and familiarity that tends to obscure our openness to God's shocking truth, whose light may arrest us from our ordinary lives and force us pursue the uncomfortable tasks of self-examination and penance.
However, even this hyperbole does have a more literal meaning: fatherhood, teaching and priestly ministry are not fundamentally human, if they are authentic. All of these roles are a participation in Christ. Those who claim them as their own possessions and use them apart from God's law, without graciously and humbly recognizing Him as the one true Father, Teacher and High Priest, assume a false authority rooted in pride instead of humble and charitable service in conformity to Christ. As the world grows ever more godless today, this phenomenon becomes more prevalent and influential. Rather than instructing students in God's law and the wonders of Creation in a spirit of humble submission, patience and honesty, teachers brainwash the innocent with distortions of reality and poison their minds and hearts with sexual perversion, hatred of their God-given gender and a meaningless, amoral view of life. Instead of giving their children a safe and loving home and imparting to them the truth of the Gospel and its virtues, parents only provide an example of vanity, arrogance and self-indulgence while withholding the grace of the Sacraments and letting their children become vicious, pusillanimous, ill-mannered and mired in despair. Likewise, instead of submitting to the one true Lord of the Kingdom and imitating His responsible and charitable government, our politicians, even those claiming to represent Catholicism, "lord it over" their people and, despite their grave evils, "are called beneficent." (Lk 22:25) St. Peter also uses this abuse as a warning to the bishops of the Church. (1 Pt 5:3)
With the combined readings today, it would be easy, as in my last reflection, to focus on the errors of the priests and bishops of the Church, just as God criticized the Jewish leaders in these passages. This interpretation would be appropriate, and my comments above apply to them as well. However, it would be a mistake for lay Christians to think only priests and bishops will be held accountable before God. In the end, Christ calls all people to holiness - we cannot simply assume the hierarchy will be holy for us. We must dedicate our lives to serving Christ through study, prayer, liturgical piety, holiness and charity, no matter what scandals and abuses may come from our shepherds or what temptations we may face in the world. In this way, we can act as beacons and ambassadors of Christ to others, giving them the hope which only He is.
This is why Pope St. John Paul the Great began the tradition of canonizing many lay saints, such as the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. Two new examples, Blessed Carlo Acutis and the Ulma family, one of whose members was an unborn child only partially born when they were martyred by the Nazis, are even more witnesses of lay sanctity to inspire our veneration and imitation as we remember the recent celebration of All Saints' Day. May all lay saints intercede for us before the throne of God in Heaven. I also ask for the intercession of my patron saint, Charles Borromeo, whose feast day was yesterday.
[W]e sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium)