Lectio Divina: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send us the Spirit that we may read your Word free of all prejudice, so that we may meditate upon your proclamation in its entirety and not selectively, so that we may pray that we grow in communion with you and with our brothers and sisters, so that we may finally act, contemplating the reality that we are living this day with your feelings and with your mercy. You who live with the Father and who grants us Love. Amen.
This Gospel passage is the last of Jesus’ public teachings, which began with the sermon on the mount (cc.5-7). Jesus is in Jerusalem. The time for His arrest is close at hand, and He is having a hard time confronting many kinds of people: the high priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, etc. Jesus is questioning Jewish religiosity as such, but He uses strong words concerning the efforts of some, especially those in authority, to twist Jewish authentic values by means of inappropriate attitudes. In this first part of chapter 23, Matthew, reporting the words of Jesus, warns the community of early Christians against reproducing a kind of life that is incompatible with faith in Jesus. Behind these words, we glimpse the conflict between the budding church and the synagogue.
b) A possible division of the text:
Matthew 23:1-7: Warning listeners and denouncing the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees.
Recommendations to the community of disciples.
1 Then, addressing the crowds and His disciples Jesus said, 2 "The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. 3 You must therefore do and observe what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people"s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! 5 Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader headbands and longer tassels, 6 like wanting to take the place of honor at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, 7 being greeted respectfully in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi. 8 "You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers. 9 You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and He is in Heaven. 10 Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant. 12 Anyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.”
3. A moment of silence
To listen to the Spirit and let the Word of God enter and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
To whom is Jesus speaking?
With whom is Matthew conversing?
Can observance and hypocrisy live together?
What is new in Jesus’ message?
What attitudes mark the community of disciples of Jesus?
These words of Jesus seem hard and argumentative. Let us try to meditate on them in conjunction with Jesus’ first discourse on the mount according to Matthew. This then becomes a comparison between the ideal of the life of a disciple of Christ and the attitudes that do not correspond with this ideal, seen in those who are still “under the Law”, as Paul would say. The discourse is addressed to the crowd and especially to the disciples, not to the scribes and Pharisees, at least in this first part of the chapter. However, there are also scribes who are “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34). Everywhere there are those who “say and do not do”.
Concerning the teaching of the scribes who “occupy the chair of Moses”, it was real enough in the synagogues, but this also has a symbolic reference because occupying the chair of Moses became a sign of power, while Jesus was teaching sitting on the ground (Mt 5:1). Jesus’ relationship with the Law is made clear in the sermon on the mount when He says that He did not come to abolish the law but to complete it (Mt 5: 17-19). Thus authentic commandments must be put into practice: “do what they tell you and listen to what they say”. In the previous discourse Jesus added: “For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:20). He followed the authentic interpretation of the Law: “you have heard it said… but I say to you”. Jesus goes beyond the formal observance of the Law (Mk 7:15) because the Kingdom of God has come (Mt 4:17), and with its coming Love, is above the Law. It is no longer sufficient to have recourse to the Law to justify the validity of religious observances (the Sabbath, the washing of hands) nor to impose “heavy burdens”. Now reference must be made to the love of God who alone gives final meaning to the behavior of human beings. For the disciple of Christ, interior motives and authentic intentions are what make an action valid (Mt 6: 22-23). By proclaiming that the kingdom of God is here, Jesus is giving us a new criterion for action that does not suppress the Law but rather reveals its authentic meaning. The commandment to love is the measure by which to criticize the Law. “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened …Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:28-30). The “heavy burdens” are prescriptions elaborated on by oral tradition. These may help in the observance of the Torah, but they can also bypass and supplant human customs. Thus, they concern others but not the leaders: “will they lift a finger to move them?”.
Religiosity can also be a means of pure exhibitionism (vv.5-7) contrary to all the teachings of the sermon on the mount. “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men” (Mt 6:1). Give alms (Mt 6:3), pray (Mt 6:5), fast (Mt 6:16), which were the most frequent good deeds for a Jew, must be performed “in secret” by the disciple of Christ because their only motive is to adore God. What is more important for the disciple is not social approval or the respect of other human beings, nor is it about titles of honor such as “rabbi”, but to be “poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3) because he or she has placed him/herself in the hands of God and claims nothing for him/herself. That is where his/her treasure lies (Mt 6:21), in heaven. This entails persecution (Mt 5:10-11) rather than applause or approval (Mt 23:6-7). God is “Our Father” (Mt 6:9), no one can take His place. That is why the disciple of Christ must be careful not to confer titles such as rabbi, father, or master. Importance and power obscure the fact that there is only one who is rabbi, father, master and you are all brothers. When John, who baptized, saw the true Master passing by, he sent his disciples to Him (Jn 1:35), the only Master, and did not keep them for himself. The community of Jesus is the one described in the discourse on the “Beatitudes” with all its radical consequences, One community of brothers and sisters capable of receiving God who comes to save gratuitously. The ideal of this community is the “service” (Mt 20:28) of the Son of Man and model of the Church. The authority of leadership loses its attraction and is no longer an ideal, “The greatest among you must be your servant” (conf. Mk 10:41-44; Jn 13), and there is no talk of hierarchical model but of service and humility, “anyone who raises himself will be humbled and anyone who humbles himself will be raised up”. Jesus’ words involve more than just an argument with the scribes and Pharisees and much more than just an exhortation to be coherent. They remind us of the identity of His disciples and of the new way in which they are called to witness.
Let us pray with Psalm 131
Yahweh, my heart is not haughty,
I do not set my sights too high.
I have taken no part in great affairs,
in wonders beyond my scope.
No, I hold myself in quiet and silence,
like a little child in its mother's arms,
like a little child, so I keep myself.
Let Israel hope in Yahweh
henceforth and for ever.
Lord, you have warned me against hypocritical behavior that does not reflect the new way that inspires the community of your disciples. How easy it is to place oneself back in the center, to grow attached to habits and to stay still while listening to your Word. Yes, I too am among those who “say and do not do” and your Word makes me uncomfortable. The search for external signs, for approval, for titles and honors disturbs my thoughts and weakens fraternity. Make my intentions and behavior as pure as were those of your mother, Mary, so as to build a community according to your feelings and with your same compassion for all. Amen