Commentary on the Gospel of
On a recent camping trip in the Colorado Rocky Mountains my wife and I encountered countless road signs warning of the possibility of upcoming dangers. Along the roadside they depicted universally understood images of falling rocks and bounding deer and icy bridges, the latter of which was easy to ignore in the heat of July! Even on our hiking trail we came upon a sign warning of charging Moose. (I am happy to report that nary a charging Moose saw we.)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus throws up a number of warning signs to the crowds, the disciples, scribes, Pharisees and us in his incessant repetition of the words “woe to you…”. Unlike our Colorado road signs of possible rock or ice or moose, Jesus is clearly stating that there is one pitfall behavior on the road of life we all must guard against. Plain and simple: hypocrisy. Don’t be a hypocrite.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist bursts on the scene hurling his own accusation at the Pharisees when he calls them a “brood of vipers.” No mincing words there. Throughout our lectionary readings recently, we have heard Jesus criticizing those rule keepers who hold the law over people's heads while not practicing it themselves. Tomorrow we will celebrate the Feast of the Passion of John the Baptist. Through these readings and rememberings, our Church seems to be calling us to authenticity and integrity over and above hypocrisy.
We have two contemporary voices in Thomas Merton and Pope Francis who remind us to watch our steps on the slippery slope of inauthenticity. Merton, the Trappist monk and modern day mystic, wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation, “There are people dedicated to God...who try to draw everyone else into activities as senseless and as devouring as their own. They are great promoters of useless work. They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures. They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God.” (p. 83) If you ask me, that sounds a lot like the voices of John the Baptist and Jesus the Nazarene.
Now this isn’t to say that our life and our work in building the Kingdom won’t require meetings and gatherings and phone calls. As a Director of Campus Ministry at a university I certainly have my share of these to which I must attend. What Merton is cautioning us against is not to let those become the center of our focus, lest we lose sight of our true goal which is direct contact with the Lord. As Jesus cautions, “You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” We can only keep the door wide open if we daily walk through it.
As he has done long before he became our pope, Francis has been holding up similar warning signs as Jesus is doing today. To cite one example where he calls for integrity, in his traditional papal Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia in 2014, he took the occasion to “diagnose” a number of potential ailments plaguing the “body” of the Curia. I don’t know about you, but I work to take similar temperature readings of myself as a member of the wider body of the Church. He said, “There is also a ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s disease’. It consists in losing the memory of our personal ‘salvation history’, our past history with the Lord and our ‘first love’ (Rev 2:4). It involves a progressive decline in the spiritual faculties which in the long or short run greatly handicaps a person by making him incapable of doing anything on his own, living in a state of absolute dependence on his often imaginary perceptions. We see it in those who have lost the memory of their encounter with the Lord...in those who build walls and routines around themselves, and thus become more and more the slaves of idols carved by their own hands.” (https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/december/documents/papa-francesco_20141222_curia-romana.html)
What am I doing to stay close to my own personal encounters with a God of love? Am I mindful not to hide from God or others behind the walls of empty structure or careless routine? Dare I ask: where have I been hypocritical when it comes to my faith and values?
Perhaps one breadcrumb to follow along the path of authenticity and integrity in our faith comes in the form of words from St. Augustine who we remember today: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love.” (1 Thes 1:2-3) I will remember you in my prayers and I hope you will remember me in yours.