Saturday, June 6, 2009

Jesus Said: Be Wary Of The Teachers Of The Law!

“Clothes make the man” – so the saying goes. These days, it would more “politically correct” to say "clothes make the person". Military personnel are distinguished by their uniforms, which tell us whether they are in the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the stripes on their sleeves or the badges on their shoulders reveal their rank. Members of religious orders – Dominicans, Franciscans, and others, can be recognized by their habits and the diocesan clergy by their black suits and clerical shirts or vests with Roman collars.

In Jesus’ time, the teachers of the law, also called the scribes, walked about in flowing robes, and they enjoyed being greeted in the marketplaces, and relished being escorted to the front seats in the synagogue and to the place of honor at banquets. But Jesus says, in today’s gospel, “They recite lengthy prayers for show, and foreclose the homes of poor widows. For this they will be punished most severely.”

The best way I can understand and explain what Jesus is saying is to consider my own experience. In nearly forty years of priesthood I have learned something about the respect that comes with wearing clerical clothes, being invited to the head table at banquets, and being escorted to the front of the line at dinners. But, what do I know about foreclosing on the homes of poor widows, or reciting lengthy prayers for show?

Let me tell you. When folks honor me because they recognize me as a priest, when I am invited to sit at the head table, or are invited to “cut the line” at the cinema, I take it personally, as a compliment not only to my priesthood, but to myself. I must admit that I don’t know anything about foreclosing homes, but my ministry has been in the Diocesan Tribunal, not in the Office of Financial Affairs.

But there’s another side of the story – there always is. In August 1995 the newly appointed Bishop of this diocese asked me if I would accept the office of Judicial Vicar, the presiding office of the Tribunal. From the day the appointment became effective, I was known as “Very Reverend”. But, nearly a decade later, my primary care physician recommended that it would be best for me to retire from administrative ministries, and the new bishop accepted my resignation.

Sometimes people who haven’t known me very long, and less frequently, folks who’ve known me for many years ask, “What do you miss most about being Judicial Vicar?” For the most part, there’s not that much I miss. I am still involved in Tribunal ministry, but I am no longer the chief judge. I still do parochial ministry, but I am no longer the administrator of a parish. My usual response to that question is this: “There is very little I miss about being the Judicial Vicar, or being the pastor of a parish. I am still involved in ministry, but no longer in administration.”

One of the sources I consulted before beginning this reflection raised an interesting question. “What use is a special hat if no one knows what it means?” I might add, “What good is a title, if the one who holds the title is not up to the responsibilities of the office that title represents?”

Sometimes it crosses my mind that folks who depend on robes and uniforms, on badges and insignia, must be rather unsure of themselves and rely on recognition from others as a measure of their self-worth. The Scribes considered that their knowledge of the Law was the only knowledge worth having. Yet their attitude was proved insecure when someone challenged their authority. History tells us that only happened once, and the challenger was Jesus of Nazareth! He challenged them, and silenced them in argument, though he had not graduated from rabbinical college. But they got even with him: they conspired with their arch-enemies, the Sadducees, who rejected most of the precepts of the Law of Moses, and the Romans, who had usurped authority in Judea, Samaria and Galilee – that is, in the land the LORD gave to his chosen people when they escaped from slavery in Egypt. But that is another story – earlier in the anthology.

Today’s gospel does point out one great casualty in the administration of the Temple treasury, and it must not be ignored: charity toward the poor.

Jesus sat near the place where the offerings were made, and watched the people putting money into the Temple treasury. Many rich people threw in substantial amounts; but a poor widow cam and put in two copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

Calling his disciples to gather around him, Jesus told them, “I tell you truthfully, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than any of the others. They contributed from their surplus, but she, in her poverty, put in everything she owned, all she had to live on.”

A widow, at this time in history, was the very image of poverty and helplessness. In that world, losing one’s husband was losing not only one’s livelihood, but one’s identity. This poor widow, who remains anonymous to this day, was being exploited by folks who were clinging to their robes, their positions, their badges. Identification, they had; identity, not so much!

No comments: