HOMILY 31st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME YEAR A 2023 ESSENDON
HUMILITY AND SERVICE, NOT SELF-IMPORTANCE AND TITLES
Mt 23.1-12 Mal 1.14-2.2, 8-10 1Thess 2.9-13
On Friday, I was celebrant of the funeral of Ted Calnan, who married his wife Carol here at St Therese’s 64 years ago. Ted presented as a very ordinary man, but who lived his life and faith in extraordinary ways, devoted to family, to his parish and school as his 5 children were growing up, working extra jobs to support and educate them, involved in church and broader community in a variety of dimensions. He was certainly one who led by example throughout his life.
As his family expressed it in brief: “To the world, he was but one; to us he was the world.” Ted just provides us with a good example of a quiet but effective proclaimer of the Gospel through his actions, living out the law of love, in humility and with a deep sense of service during his 88 years, very much according to today’s Gospel!
So, now we move to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ultimate counter-attack on the religious leaders who have been trying to bait him all along the way. It has been a hostile relationship, because of their negative reaction to his down to earth approach to teaching theology, and its practice in real life, about a God of love and mercy, for whom all are equally important, with no preference for those with knowledge, titles, position or power!
It’s interesting how human nature keeps creeping into our behaviour and attitudes, where we think we know it all, and therefore have almost a right to put others down, whom we think inferior or less significant.
Titles are taken up here by Jesus, as a means of pretending to be superior, with the reminder that there is only one teacher, that being Jesus. The term ‘Rabbi’, could be translated as ‘My great one’, a term of flattery, perhaps overblown, particularly for those who got satisfaction from the title.
Scripture scholar Raymond Brown suggests that external criticism of the Catholic practice of calling priests ‘Father’ is justified by today’s passage! I tend to agree, given that, for 45 years since my ordination in 1978, I have always introduced myself by my first name, but it’s up to others to decide how to address me after that, with whatever they are comfortable (as long as it’s nice!). The most amusing encounter was in St Brigid’s Parish in Ottawa (now suppressed!), where I was working during Canon Law studies, when Mum was visiting, and was asked if she was “Father’s mother”, to which she replied: “I’ve never been called that before, but I am John’s mother, if that’s what you mean!!”
Brown does then say that titles are sometimes a necessary thing, as in the secular world, we have ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’. Then again, one can move from ‘Doctor’ to ‘Mister’ in the medical profession, as with my orthopaedic surgeon brother, Peter. So titles can be a bit inconsistent, while my Rehab specialist sister Barbara remains ‘Doctor’! My preference is for first names, but that’s just my opinion!
As we know, the Catholic Church got a bit caught up in titles since it was recognized by Emperor Constantine as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313AD! Cardinals are called ‘Eminence’, and in North America, bishops and archbishops are ‘Excellency’, here ‘Your Grace’ and ‘My Lord’ (A bit of a problem when written to by 2 people: Think about it!), while Popes are titles ‘Your Holiness’, although there have certainly been some most unholy ones along the course of history, through the centuries!! A review mightn’t be a bad idea!
Many, but not all, of the Pharisees and scribes seem to have developed an attitude over time, that they were there to provide direction, correction and control, and that they had all the answers. At the same time, from the way Jesus approached them, many had become hard-hearted and arrogant, with little or no consideration for the human situation of those whom they were meant to serve, not oppress, criticise or condemn.
And there’s nothing like the armchair critic, whatever one’s expertise, where it’s easier to critique in a few sentences, what may well have taken great lengths of time to practise, prepare and perform, whatever the discipline or area of commentary, from music to cooking to preaching!
We can see the final clash coming, between Jesus and the religious leaders, as he gives the secular leaders no reason to condemn him or feel threatened, even if some of his followers still thought he might support freedom from Roman occupation and rule.
It’s no surprise that in the end, they just can’t eliminate, or at least lessen his influence, by logical arguments, as he remains steadfast and consistent in his preaching and teaching and practice. They just miss the point completely, tied up in their own world of self-importance and self-righteousness, and apparent blindness to their own inconsistencies.
A classic example is the way, a few years ago, a certain narcissist was critical of Nelson Mandela as not being such a great person, and then, more recently, comparing himself with Mandela as unjustly accused, just using an example to suit himself, whatever the clear contradiction and total lack of logic, or truth, for that matter!
Jesus’ message comes down to humility and service of others. Happiness and fulfilment don’t come from self-indulgence and personal satisfaction, but from reaching out, engaging with, and responding to the needs of others.
While this last week we celebrated All Saints and All Souls, I always make the point that we know who our saints are, and we need to remember no saint is perfect! All have their foibles and some were quite strange. They don’t need to be officially canonized, which requires a lengthy investigative and costly process I once had to study in Canon Law! Mary MacKillop is a good example worth noting, but, in general, we can reflect on our own role models, who have done their best to not just live out their faith, but lead us along the path of faith as well, through their example, and trying to practise what they preached during their lives. Here, in front of our altar, for the month of All Souls this November, we have reminders of those who have gone before us and for whom we should be eternally grateful.
The challenge of today’s Gospel is Jesus’ criticism of hypocrisy, where we all have that gap in our lives, of falling short of practising what we preach, in a spirit of humility. ‘The greatest among you will be your servant.’
john hannon 5th November 2023