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The 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 5, 2017

     In the gospel for last Sunday the Pharisees put Jesus to the test about his understanding and interpretation of God’s Law. Today it is Jesus who puts the Pharisees to the test – or maybe I should say, puts them on the hot seat, because there’s nothing that Jesus says about them in today’s gospel that is the least bit flattering.  “Do what they tell you,” Jesus says, “but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice; they tie heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders but they will not lift a finger to move them…All their works are performed to be seen.” Pretty strong stuff, wouldn’t you agree!  And it’s directed toward the highly respected religious leaders of the land: the teachers, the authorities who sat on the seat of Moses.

     If you want to get some idea of how gutsy Jesus was in taking them on, just imagine what it would be like for someone to take on today’s religious leaders in that way - people like me - or others higher up the ecclesiastical food chain.  Well, you don’t have to imagine it because it’s something that happens quite regularly and the one who does it is none other than Pope Francis!  In many of his weekday homilies – and even in his formal addresses to the Roman Curia – the Pope goes after a certain kind of religious leader (he calls them “Doctors of the Law” – which is not meant to be a compliment!). He has in mind the rigid, holier-than-thou, highly clericalized careerists who parade their pieties and use their authority as a weapon against people. They live their lives at a far remove from the people, and they impose heavy burdens on them that they themselves would never think of carrying.

     In one particularly memorable homily he gave at a morning Mass not long ago, Pope Francis contrasted real authority - the kind of authority Jesus exercised - with the false authority of these “Doctors of the Law.” Real authority, he said, has three characteristics: it’s humble, it’s in touch with people, and it’s consistent. A word about each.

     First, real authority is always humble.  Jesus may have been Lord but he never ‘lorded it over’ others: he always taught with humility and he wanted his disciples to do the same.  “Let the greatest among you be as the one who serves,” Jesus said.  In commenting on that, Pope Francis observes that, “unlike the Doctors of the Law who have the mindset of princes – issuing commands and demanding obedience – Jesus earned his authority, and he did so by putting himself humbly at the service of people.”  So that’s the first thing: real authority is always humble.

     And the Pope says the second characteristic of real authority is that it’s in touch with people.  Here’s how he puts it: “Unlike the Doctors of the Law, Jesus was not allergic to the people.  Reaching out and touching lepers and sick people did not disgust Jesus. It’s what he did and it’s what endeared him to the people. Being close to the people, having the smell of the sheep – that’s another thing that gave Jesus true authority.”  

     And the third hallmark of Jesus’ authority, according to Pope Francis, is consistency. That’s another way of saying that Jesus practiced what he preached – that he was transparent and believable, that there wasn’t an ounce of hypocrisy in him. Unlike the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was never one to say one thing and do another.

     Now, none of this is terribly surprising, I suppose. What is surprising is where it’s coming from: that it’s coming from a Pope willing to take on church leaders – willing to call them to account, call us to account. And he can do it because, like Jesus, there’s really nothing he says that he doesn’t do. And how refreshing is that!  How refreshing to have a Pope who is not afraid to depart at times from the expected papal script, not afraid to ruffle some feathers, not afraid to expose hypocrisy wherever he finds it, not afraid to condemn things like clericalism and careerism in the Church for the cancers they are. In doing so, Pope Francis is really doing nothing more than taking his cues from Jesus’ own playbook: Jesus who never hesitated to boldly confront the religious leaders of his day.

     My friends, normally I try to draw from the scriptures of the day lessons that speak to all of us, but today I think the lesson is quite pointedly for me and for all who, like me, are called to leadership in the Church. We shouldn’t hear those scriptures without being challenged by them: without examining our consciences about how we go about our ministry.

     But maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to say that everyone who exercises authority – and that includes people like parents, and political leaders, and people who are managers in the workplace – everyone in authority can be challenged by what Pope Francis has to say about authority because things like humility, and closeness to one’s charges, and consistency are important there, too. The Church has no monopoly on “Doctors of the Law.” They can show up just about any place!

     So there is some takeaway here for everyone and, as always, it’s Jesus who shows the way: Jesus who never preached a word he didn’t practice, Jesus who never lorded it over anyone, Jesus who was meek and humble of heart, Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples and told them to do the same, Jesus who is ever in our midst as one who serves!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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