As I read this Gospel passage the other day, I thought immediately of Pope Francis and a homily he preached a couple of years ago. It was one of those daily Mass homilies he preaches to the residents of the Vatican’s St. Martha guesthouse where the Holy Father lives.
His homily began with a prayer that echoed the words of Jesus in the Gospel:
"Lord, free your people from a spirit of clericalism and aid them with a spirit of prophecy."During the course of his remarks, Francis described how the Pharisees, like so many of those who had preceded them, willfully misunderstood the prophets who had all pointed to Jesus. Blind to God's Revealed Word, they couldn't recognize the Incarnate Word as He lived and taught among them.
Today we'd accuse the Pharisees of being "spin doctors," all about image. Yes, for them it was all appearance, an outward display of their holiness, their importance. The Pharisees made a point of exercising their authority over the people, and so they saw Jesus not as the prophetic fulfillment of God's Revelation, but as a threat.
But the people thought otherwise. They seemed to recognize that the words and acts of Jesus were the manifestation of a unique authority that came from within Him. Sadly, the Pharisees, motivated by pride and fear, were concerned only with questioning Jesus' authority:
"By what authority do you teach?"
"By what law do you make these claims of yours?"
"How is it lawful for you to heal on the Sabbath?"
Indeed, Jesus was seen as so great a threat that they plotted to kill Him.
How many of us today are like them?
Brothers and sisters, the Gospel is proclaimed for our benefit and reflection; this is why these words are here for us today. This passage isn't simply the description of some incident involving people in the distant past, so we can say, if only to ourselves, "Oh, yes, those nasty Pharisees..." and then forget about it.
No, like the entire Gospel, this passage is written to us and for us; but all too often, like the Pharisees, we hear the Gospel, the Good News, but fail to make the connection with ourselves. We, too, focus on authority and legalism; we become so wrapped up in the rules and rites and traditions of the Church -- in themselves all very good things -- that we forget their purpose. They are not ends; they are gifts. They are the means by which we can deepen and strengthen our relationship with God.
As Pope Francis stressed that morning, all too often we forget the promise of Jesus Christ, the Good News, and like the Pharisees focus only on authority. The pope concluded his homily as he had begun it, with a prayer:
"Lord, let us not forget your promise. Let us not grow tired of going forward. Let us not close ourselves in with legality."Yes, some bishops, priests and deacons are certainly guilty of a clericalism through which they don't practice what they preach. They forget that without humility the other virtues cannot exist.
I suppose we deacons are fortunate. Not only do we minister at the very bottom rung of the clerical ladder, but the word "deacon" itself means "servant." With our name constantly reminding us of our lowly status, we are blessed. If only we could all remember this.
Today's Gospel passage is also used by some Christians to criticize the Catholic practice of addressing a priest as "Father," as well as referring to the pope as the "Holy Father."
Perhaps we should remind them of St. Paul's words to the Corinthians in which he calls himself their father [1 Cor 4:14-16]. This is no contradiction. Paul understood, just as the Church has always understood, that Jesus is making a spiritual point, reminding His disciples of their status as servants of God's people. But in that role as both teacher and father they are also servants. And Jesus reminds His disciples that they must also be teachers. Indeed, with His final command, he instructs them to "make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commended you" [Mt 28:19-20].
Yes, as disciples, we must become like servants. Interestingly, one of the pope's titles is "Servant of the servants of God."
And so a father, whether in the Christian home or in the sanctuary, whether through sacramental Matrimony or Holy Orders, is called to lead his children, God's children, into the life in Christ.
Jesus simply reminds us not to clamor for honor or respect. It is through service that we become great. It is through humility that we are exalted.