In the Gospel today we are given the first part of a very harsh polemic which Jesus delivered against the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus's language shocks people. Is this the gentle Jesus who commands us to love our enemies? And what is just as bad, this passage from Matthew 23 has been used down the ages as a source of anti-Semitic attacks which refer to the hypocrisy of Pharisees.
What can we do with it? Firstly we should remember that Jesus himself is a Jewish layman who, like the many prophets before him, is attacking the religious leaders of his own Jewish people. The prophets used harsh language to call to account those who were destroying the moral fabric of their society. Their words were spoken out of an agony of love in order to bring healing to a diseased body politic. The words of judgement were meant to save.
And secondly we should recall that when Matthew was writing his Gospel perhaps fifty years after Jesus death he was addressing a church which was falling into the weaknesses that resulted from the same arrogant clericalism which Jesus had attacked. These weaknesses are perennial. The vices which Jesus lambasted flourish in the contemporary church so we should not only look to the past but see the dangers under our own noses.
Why are they such dangerous vices? Because they corrupt. It is corrupting when religious leaders do not practice what they preach. They proclaim a faith which in God and in his Son Jesus recognises one master, one father and one teacher. It is a community united under one God and baptised into one Lord.
The consequences of this are radical. Jesus tells us 'You are all brothers (and sisters)'. Christians are equal in the sight of God before they are given different roles. The most important mark of a member of the Church is baptism. The day we became Christian through baptism is far more important than the day on which we may have been ordained as priest or bishop. Baptism gives us a basic equality in the sight of God - before all other distinctions are drawn - and a duty to put that belief into practice. Religious leaders who boast of their knowledge of the law but oppress their people with weighty moral demands betray the Christ who went out of his way to help those who were weary and heavy laden. Faith must be put into practice. If we believe in a humble Christ then the desire to seek status at the expense of our brother is hypocritical and a betrayal.
We have such a deep human need for honour and status. Being a simple brother is not enough, the church, we say, must adopt the symbols of power if it to be really effective and have some clout. So titles are useful. We need recognition, so what's wrong in being called father, or doctor, or eminence even a prince of the Church. And what harm is there in a bit of ostentatious clerical dress whether it be a cappa magna or a very large collar with tassels on it?
We may smile at this but Jesus doesn't. He is scornful of our self-promotion. We are seeking the honour of men rather than the honour of God. What Jesus notices may be small vices in themselves but taken together they can grow into the arrogance of a clerical world which becomes powerful and protects its own privileges. The Gospels tell us how keen the disciples were to get the best places in the kingdom. So we end up with authoritarian leaders who are too conscious of their own dignity and importance.
And Jesus's answer is still the same. Change your way of thinking. 'The greatest among you
must be your servant.' Be humble as he was humble and let God do the exalting,
attacks on these tendencies makes for a difficult reading. It would be easier
to avoid it or tone it down. But his prophetic challenge to avoid the dangers
of clericalism and the scandals which go with the abuse of power is still
relevant. And if we look at the recent history of the Church we should heed the
harsh challenge of Jesus now, rather than face being accused of the scandals
which stem from such abuse by the even harsher words of the world's media.