“For they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Mt 23:4). Our reflection today centre on the above gospel verse where Christ extensively criticized the religious leaders for not practicing what they preach. In fact, we are called to be true ‘PP’, not as it is commonly referred to as ‘Parish Priest’, but to ‘Preach and Practice’ what we preach. This calls us to reflect more on our practice of the virtue of humility amidst the varied titles we may have received. It is in view of this that the first reading from the Book of Malachi faults corrupt religious leaders. The prophet Malachi criticizes priests for dishonoring God and leading others astray.
He says, “And now, O priests, this command is for you… You have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abase before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction” (Mal 2:1.8-9). The prophet shows a contrast between the ideal and the real. The priests were expected to keep the word of God with knowledge, reverence and obedience. Instead, they turned aside from the way of the Lord. There are so many things that can make priests turn aside from the Lord. When priests become power intoxicated, align themselves to materialism and infidelity, such priests gradually turn aside from the way, and will find it difficult to stand for justice or truth. Such priests can be partial and sentimental towards national or common interest at a trigger of a ‘brown envelop.’
As a result of this, we must have observed of recent, how the common man or even some journalists are doing better in one of the major roles of priests which is to fearlessly address issues that bothers us as a people. When the prophet says, ‘The priests have caused many to stumble by their instructions and have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ it refers to the agreement between God and the tribe of Levi, who served as priests. By keeping God’s way and showing partiality in decisions, the priests are said to have corrupted the covenant made with God, thus betraying their sacred roles. Malachi serves as a cautionary message for religious leaders and followers alike, reminding us of the responsibility to uphold God’s laws and to treat everyone impartially. Religious leaders must be of good example.
It is on this note that Christ addressed the religious leaders in the gospel when he spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so, practice and observe whatever they tell you; but not what they do; for they preach what they do not practice” (Mt 23:1-3). Sitting on Moses’ seat means teaching by Moses’ authority, as Moses of course was the great lawgiver. So, Christ’ disciples are to honor the honorable office that the Scribes and Pharisees occupy. And to do what they teach, insofar their teaching accords with the Torah. However, there is a clause (but) contrasting Christ’ statements, “But not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (v.3). There are so many intelligent and eloquent preachers of our time. How many practice what they preach? By extension, there are so many church goers, but how many practice their faith? We are Christians and practice religious leadership at various levels. It could be in our family as prayer leader or place of work.
As religious leaders, in what ways can we avoid leading people astray and instead guide them towards faithfulness? Do our actions or practice betray the faith professed? Are we good at condemning religious leaders but failing in keeping the teachings as Christ has instructed? The point is this, the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees may be sound, but not in concomitance with their lives. God has called them to high position so that they might provide expert counsel on spiritual matters to people who have to work for a living, people who don’t have opportunity to study the lawday and night, for people who are illiterates and who would not have easy access to the scrolls or Scripture, nor have a good comprehension even when they could read. God called the Scribes and Pharisees as he did call us to be servants to such people, but we have treated the call as if it is a right rather than a vocation, to be honored rather than to serve.
When we miss this point of service in our vocation, we will practically become more interested in honorary titles such as Very Reverend Father, Most Reverend Doctor, Professor and so on. It is on this note Christ criticized the use of honorary titles. It is basically for service and not for self-elevation over others which may result to pride. While the prophet Malachi focuses on the responsibilities of priests to honor God, Christ in the gospel deals with the need of true humility and service required from religious leaders which we find ourselves. A call to practice what we preach and avoid hypocritical lifestyle. He said, “He who is greatest among you must be your servant; whoever exalt himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (vv. 11- 12). Greatness comes from serving others. Therefore, to be great, we must start by polishing the shoes of others, making other people’s bed and feeding other people’s hungry children. We cannot do this if we are proud.
It requires humility. Not to be pretentiously and hypocritically humble like some politicians ready to lick the foot of their godfathers and after gaining some political power or leadership position, then comes their epiphanies or true manifestation of themselves. It is commonly said, ‘when you make one a god, be ready to worship him.’ The moment you stop the worship, you open door for troubles. Hence, our humility should not be pretentious, not hypocritical but for service. St. Paul in the second reading stands as a model for religious leaders and followers to practice what is preached. He expressed how he and his colleague were concerned for the well-being of the Thessalonian Christians as caring for their welfare as a mother would care for her children.
They didn’t seek material gain or praise but showed genuine love and concern to the Thessalonians to the extent of giving themselves. The Thessalonians ‘had become very dear’ to them. They didn’t place heavy burden over the people while they preached to them but worked night and day. Similarly, we are expected to develop healthy affection for our flocks, not sharing only the gospel, but also ourselves. Let us not be like our political leaders saying, ‘allow the poor to breath,’ but are suffocating them. In a world like ours with so many preachers and listeners, the liturgy of today urges us to practicalize what we preach and listen to. Happy Sunday.