Gospel according to Saint Matthew 23,1-12:
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: «The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sat on the seat of Moses. So you shall do and observe all they say, but do not do as they do, for they do not do what they say. They tie up heavy burdens and load them on the shoulders of the people, but they do not even raise a finger to move them. They do everything in order to be seen by people; so they wear very wide bands of the Law around their foreheads, and robes with large tassels. They enjoy the first place at feasts and reserved seats in the synagogues, and being greeted in the marketplace and being called “Master” by the people.
»But you, do not let yourselves be called “Master” because you have only one Master, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Neither should you call anyone on earth “Father”, because you have only one Father, he who is in heaven. Nor should you be called “leader”, because Christ is the only leader for you. Let the greatest among you be the servant of all. For whoever makes himself great shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be made great».
Hypocrites and Servants
p. Luis CASASUS President of the Idente Missionaries
Rome, November 05, 2023 | XXXI Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; 1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13; Mt 23:1-12
1. Hypocrisy. Dante, in the Divine Comedy (1472), proposes Caiaphas as an example of hypocrisy. Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest of Jerusalem who headed the Sanhedrin, a Jewish court composed of 71 rabbis. On the eve of Passover, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, Jesus was arrested and taken to Caiaphas’ house. This was an unusual situation for several reasons.
Normally, detainees were taken to a barracks. Trials were not held at night, much less during the feasts. Moreover, a trial required a quorum of the Sanhedrin. In their absence, under cover of darkness during a sacred feast, Caiaphas went ahead. The “trial” ended with a guilty verdict. Caiaphas had no power to execute Jesus according to Roman law, so he asked the Romans to do so.
So, in the Divine Comedy, Caiaphas is found crucified on the ground, where bent men in golden robes trample him underfoot. These men are hypocrites whose punishment is to perform this torture for all eternity. Their robes look beautiful, but they are covered with lead, which makes them incredibly heavy. Crucifixion does not seem to be punishment enough for Caiaphas, he has the added torment of the weight of all the other hypocrites jumping on him.
And, as the English writer Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) said, hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-racking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practiced at spare moments; it is a whole-time job. It takes a lot of effort to be a “successful” hypocrite.
But the reality is that many do succeed, at least for a time, especially in positions of responsibility, with well-developed tactics of convincing others that they are wrong, using justifications and distorting the facts. At their highest degree, the hypocrite is capable of making those who question them or have different opinions feel very bad.
But we have to be careful, because both you and I have hypocritical elements in our soul and behavior. Surely.
Recall the episode of Samson and Delilah. This woman is an example of cunning hypocrisy, putting her words and her body at the service of a political plan.
Looked at from the spiritual life, hypocrisy is so serious because it affects the center of prayer. It means a clear division of the soul, a serious alteration of our unitive faculty, which is produced little by little, based on gestures with which we try to protect our fame.
Returning to the example cited above, as high priest, Caiaphas had the sacred task of defending and enforcing the Jewish law. He departed from those laws acting not out of love for the law, but for other motives: hunger for power and prestige. Today, in the Gospel reading, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites because their intention is to be seen by men.
That is the problem, the true origin of hypocrisy: our intentions, which are not pure, which are usually mixed, contaminated. The hypocrite will perform generous acts, but above all to receive gratitude and admiration, thus behaving in exactly the opposite way to what Christ personally asks of us: to carry the cross and deny myself. This is what the prophet Malachi condemns in the First Reading with harsh words: that the priests pretended to serve the people and in reality took advantage of their office to benefit themselves and their families.
We are hypocrites because we expect to be seen by men, to feel sure of their approval… but we do not intend to be seen by God the Father, as Christ did, and to satisfy him in everything: This is my beloved Son, and with him I am well pleased (Mt 3: 17). This is the true ascetical attitude, the only intention, true aspiration, which can block all others and set us free.
2. Service. Let us recall how St. Paul ends his Epistle to the Romans: with a chapter dedicated to thanking many people whose names he mentions and about whom we know little. But he thanks them all for their service, including Phoebe, “helper of the church” (deaconess, in the original text), Andronicus and Junias, who accompanied him in prison….
What is the reason for serving?
Surely, the most important is to recognize that each of the people I have at my side is called to fulfill a mission, the scope of which I cannot know in all its breadth. But it is clear that Christ singles out St. John the Baptist above all others because he made it possible for Him to carry out his mission. Undoubtedly, the most sublime and moving example is that of Mary, who immediately identified herself as a servant before God. But this is true as soon as we speak of an authentic spiritual life.
The virtue of obedience, central to religious life, becomes service when we become aware that our neighbor really benefits from our obedience to God; we help him to fulfill the purpose for which God put him in this world.
* Christ washes the feet of the apostles, because feet are necessary to “go to all nations“.
* Joseph does the impossible so that Mary can fulfill her exceptional mission.
* Mary visits Elizabeth so that she can bring a unique apostle into the world.
* Jesus instructs a repentant Peter with a single charge: Feed my lambs. In other words, he awakens him to his mission.
An essential condition for service is… to believe that my neighbor really needs it. This is how heroic acts are produced, when someone realizes that a person is in serious danger and puts his or her life on the line to save that person. Christ told his Father that He did not ask to take us out of the world, which already indicates that God has a plan for each of us for now, not just for after death.
If I begin to focus on my limitations, my past failures, my limited strength, the thought of serving will not even cross my mind.
What does my service bring to my neighbor? It is easy to think that he or she will be relieved of some work or worry, but the essential thing is that this person receives the proof of being loved beyond words or the common enjoyment of good times. A small gesture of service, such as washing feet, may be useful and practical, but above all it is symbolic, no doubt, and it says strongly that I wish to free the other person from all that separates him or her from God, peace and happiness. Even if I only achieve it by 1%, that human being will know that he or she is not alone. To serve someone is to say without any speech: I believe in you.
Let us note that, apparently, today’s Gospel text has no unity, why do hypocrisy and service appear together? I believe that this is a new geniality of Christ. Just as it is said that the virtue opposed to laziness is diligence, we can affirm that the opposite of hypocrisy is service.
Indeed, both attitudes cover the whole spectrum of our unitive faculty, of course with opposite nuances:
* When I am hypocritical, my intentions end up pointing towards myself, even if I am doing something “for others.” When I serve, I am driven by the same affliction that Christ experienced: the urgency to bring peace to all.
* When I am hypocritical, I need to be recognized, seen and congratulated. When I serve, I try to do it in secret, so as not to be interrupted (as Peter wanted to prevent Christ from washing his feet); I am especially interested in being seen by God, and only by Him.
* When I am hypocritical, my actions appear to be cold, lacking in enthusiasm, pure obligation. Moreover, I make unnecessary precepts and rules for others, in reality originating in my personal taste (attention, those of us who have to lead in some way!). When I serve, one can see in my small actions a joy that cannot be born from doing a job to which I do not see the sense.
So service appears as a true antidote to our hypocrisy.
Serving is not a sport, it is not “an activity”, it is an attitude that must lead me to never miss an opportunity to serve. If Mary accepted the extraordinary mission of being the Mother of the Savior, putting her whole life and her fame at stake, she also accepted immediately to go and help her cousin Elizabeth with the household chores… something that seems simpler. But that is the difference. Right at the moment of the Visitation, Elizabeth recognized the presence of God in her young cousin: You are blessed among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the child leaped for joy in my womb.
An important consideration, which Paul emphasizes, is that we must be careful not to make others serve us. Of course, it will be necessary at times, but we can abuse their generosity and it is clear that, for example, St. Paul was careful not to be a financial burden to anyone. Nevertheless, he humbly allowed himself to be helped when it was necessary. Even before, Christ himself had given witness to this, welcoming the help of the Cyrenian father of a family returning from the fields. We do not always do so, and sometimes we refuse the help or advice of others in order to show someone and ourselves that we are self-sufficient, independent.
We end with a testimony of Medicine:
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. She wrote a best-seller called Death and Dying. The book grew out of interviews with hundreds of people who had been declared clinically dead and then revived.
Repeatedly these people report that during their near-death experience they underwent a kind of instant replay of their lives. It was like seeing a movie of everything they’d ever done. How did their instant replay affect these people? Did it reveal anything significant? Commenting on this, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says: When you come to this point, you see that there are only two things that are relevant: the service you rendered to others and love. All those things we think are important, like fame, money, prestige, and power, are insignificant.
In the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph,