Homily for 31st Sunday of the Year 2005
There is a story about Prince Philip who was toasted at a banquet with two lines from John Dryden, a seventeenth century English poet:
“A man so various that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all mankind's epitome.”
The prince liked the lines so much he looked up the rest of the poem. The lines immediately following those two read:
in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything by starts, and nothing long:
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon.”
(Absalom and Achitophel John Dryden,1681. This is one of the finest satirical poems in English. The poem is based on the story from the Old Testament about the rebellion of Absalom against King David. (2 Samuel 15) Dryden used the story to satirise King Charles II and the Duke of Monmouth who rebelled.)
The person giving the toast got his point across. A public figure is always at risk of appearing pretentious.
In the history of the Church seldom have we taken Jesus words in the gospel today as directed at ourselves. His very strong words of warning to leaders echoes down to our own day. It is no wonder that he incurred the wrath of the Pharisees. And for the Church to which Matthew addressed his Gospel the passage reflects the growing distance between their Jewish faith and their discipleship of Jesus. And we can easily imagine that Matthew is warning his own Church community about how leadership should be transparent.
Jesus uses the word “hypocrite” to sum it all up in the very next verse of Chapter 23 not read today. The word “hypocrite” is an interesting one. It is a Greek word and it originally referred to an actor on a stage. That is, someone who is pretending to be someone else. That is OK on a stage but not in every day life. It is especially not OK in someone who is a religious leader claiming to represent the word of God. Jesus spends the entire chapter 23 denouncing the Pharisees in very angry language. Of all the sins we get excited about we don't very often confess our hypocrisy. For Jesus it seems to be the worst sin.
Hypocrisy is all around us. We hear leaders sounding off about the drug problem, for example. But who dares challenge the income derived from alcohol sales to the young. Every one decries the epidemic of child abuse and sexual exploitation of the young. But who is going to challenge entertainment value of the soft porn and violence that is on our TVs every day. It seems that everything we do whether it be the push for Sunday trading or policies to pursue international trade end up diminishing the ability of families to give meaning and purpose to children.
Of course, even talking about these things risks my being hypocritical myself. Because what am I going to do about it? When this kind of blindness is found in religious leaders it is worse than elsewhere. So we shouldn't wonder at the outrage at the sins of priests and church leaders who have abused children. Do as they say, Jesus says, but do not do as they do. Let your worship be true. Society and the Church both need prophets like Jesus to expose the abuse, the hypocrisy, and the buffoonery of leaders. But like Jesus they are always condemned.
For ourselves we need to hear the criticism too. Our life, our holiness, is very much a process of taking off the mask of the actor. Learning to give up the pretence of trying to be perfect. Exposing the real person within and learning to love ourselves as God does. And God must laugh when he sees the lengths to which we go to hide our failings and keep up appearences. We are like clowns at the circus with those garish painted faces. As Jesus warns it is not what we wear on the outside, nor the titles we give to ourselves which make us a reflection of God's holiness. The question is not “Do I wear a cross?” But “Do I carry my cross?” It is becoming a servant to one another which reveals true holiness and true leadership. One of the best titles given to the pope is that he is “the servant of the servants of God.”