Cycle A: Thirty-first Sunday of the Liturgical Year



The words that we just heard from the Gospel constitute a kind of critical appraisal of the behaviour of the religious leaders of Israel in the time of Christ. Jesus could not bear their pride and hypocrisy. That’s why he denounced them quite strongly. He reproached the scribes and the Pharisees for drawing attention to themselves and disguising their evil intentions under the appearance of virtue.

It is true that the cultural and religious context of today is very different from the one prevailing in Palestine 2000 years ago. Even if we notice greater authenticity on the part of young people today, it remains true to say that we are all tempted, at one moment or another, to put on masks and give others the impression that we are great and better than anybody else. Even priests and religious are not exempt from this attitude.

Jesus said: “You must do and observe what they – the scribes and Pharisees – tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach.” In these few words, Jesus gives us a very good piece of advice, a warning and a judgment.

I - About priests

1- His advice is this: “Do and observe what they tell you.” This meant that, whatever might have been their personal behaviour, these religious leaders were entitled to transmit the prescriptions of the Law to the people because of the function entrusted to them. In the same way, we can say that a priest is expected to proclaim the Word of God and administer the sacraments, whatever his personal behaviour may be. The sacred character of his function is more important than his own personal weaknesses. He always remains an imperfect instrument in the hands of God. Even though he is just a “vessel of clay”, as Saint Paul says, he administers a treasure which is much more precious than he is. Listen to the following testimony from Mother Teresa.

I told this story in the United States at a meeting they had asked me to address. After the meeting, a priest came to me and said, ‘I had decided to leave the priesthood and sent my letter of resignation to my bishop. After hearing what you said, I shall cancel my resignation and remain at the service of souls as a priest of Christ.’”

2- “Do not be guided by what they do.” That is the warning. Even though you are expected to do and observe what your priests tell you in the name of Christ when they preach the Word of God to you, it does not mean that you have to take their behaviour as a model for you. Unfortunately, it happens at times that we, priests, may give you a bad example. Then you have to pray for us, so that we may prove worthy of the divine mysteries entrusted to us. As Saint John Paul II said, “a constant danger with priests is that they become so immersed in the work of the Lord that they neglect the Lord of the work.”

Father Ravignan’s sermons used to convert people because, according to a listener, “they reflected deep personal convictions.” A man, who went to hear him out of curiosity and saw him making the sign of the cross, said: “That’s enough! As far as I am concerned, he has already preached the sermon. Any priest who can make the sign of the cross with such utter conviction is more inspiring than any sermon could ever be.”

II - For lay people:

The words that Jesus spoke and which are reported in the Gospel of today do not apply only to priests or religious. They apply also to all people in the Church. The proof is the way we often react to these words of Christ. If you said to yourself, while listening to this Gospel passage, “this applies to the priests or to a few people I know, not to myself,” you showed that you, too, have become a Pharisee.

1- I think, for example, of the man who often tells his children, “You should obey me, because I’m the boss in this house.” It is true that the children must obey their parents, but is that the reason for the parents to make their authority felt?

2- How often we are inclined to pass judgments on others and despise them because they don’t think or behave the way we like! How often the parents will expect the children to do things that they will never have the courage to do themselves!

Hervé Morissette csc