Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Practice What You Preach! Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

The scribes and Pharisees are the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. So, obey and practice whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example, because they don’t practice what they preach. They place unbearable burdens on the shoulders of the people, but they won’t lift a finger to help carry them.

“Everything they do is for show. They wear large prayer boxes on their arms, and long tassels on their robes. They love sitting at the head table at banquets, and in the seats of honor at the synagogues. They enjoy respectful greetings when the walk through the marketplaces, and being called 'Rabbi”.

As for you, don’t let anyone call you “Rabbi”. You have only one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. Don’t address anyone on earth as “Father”; for only God in heaven is your Father. Don’t let anyone call you “Teacher”, since you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. All those who exalt themselves will be humbled; and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Two of the sayings of Jesus in this gospel have entered the everyday vocabulary. One of them is usually repeated in the original: “Practice what you preach”. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing the contrary. They imposed strict observance of the Law of Moses on the people, but devised all sorts of exceptions for themselves. They did what they told other folks not to do, and hardly ever practiced what they preached. That is the reason that the word “Pharisee” is virtually synonymous with “hypocrite” in many people’s minds.

Jesus makes a clear distinction between what the Pharisees and the Scribes taught, and they way they behaved. “Obey and practice what they tell you, but don’t follow their example.” Or, more colloquially, “Do as they say, not as they do.”

One of the scripture reflections I read to “prime the pump” before I write these likens the attitude of the Pharisees with the attitude of Paul the Apostle, who said, “I don’t do the good I want, but I do the evil I don’t want to” (Romans 7:19). That’s no surprise, since Paul was himself a Pharisee. That didn’t stop Paul from preaching the good news. He bared his innermost self to us, in that passage from Romans. He tried to do his best, and he encourages us to do likewise.

Sincere religious leaders don’t judge sinners, but identify with them. Jesus himself, at the very beginning of his public ministry, went down to the Jordan and was baptized by John. It was after his baptism that Jesus met Andrew and John and invited them to become his first two disciples. But there are other religious leaders who have a different attitude. They can’t acknowledge their own sinfulness, so they project it onto others. Their zeal is fueled by self-loathing. Even when what they preach is literally correct, everything they say is spoiled by their hypocrisy. I know of an older priest who preached a retreat to a group of younger priests. He told them, “If you don’t love people, don’t preach! You may be able to express some truth, but it will be impossible for you to “speak the truth in love”. (Ephesians 4:15). Each of us can think of examples in our own lives when people who spoken their moral opinions boldly, but whose actions contradict their words.

The Pharisees are historical figures who flourished twenty centuries ago. Yet we read about them often in the Liturgy? Why? Because we really haven’t gone away at all!

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