Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen… The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Matthew 21:1-5, 11-12
I have this gift in reading a Scripture passage like the one we’ll hear this coming Sunday and somehow always assigning blame to someone else immediately without ever reading myself into the Scripture passage (unless it’s the Beatitudes, of course!). The Pharisees? No, not me! It’s all of those guys out there (as I point obnoxiously around the room). No need to read myself into the passage if it’s clearly about everyone else and not me! I can keep on living with no conviction because I’m living just how God wants me to live! Like I said… it’s a gift. ;)
The truth is that we can try to read ourselves out of this passage as much as we want but when we get to the last line, “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” we are struck with the truth of Jesus’ words. These words are to us. To me. To you. To the religious people. The church people. And our only course of action is to humble ourselves and listen to His words.
They preach but they do not practice. There are so many facets of our faith, we can’t possibly follow it all to the degree that Jesus called us. Jesus spells it out clearly to the rich man. He tells him to follow ALL of the commandments and the rich man replies, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus responds to the man by telling him to give all of his possessions away to the poor and come follow Him. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t try to fake like you are righteous because you follow all the rules. You haven’t given up nearly enough to be my disciple.” Even those of us who believe that we follow every single commandment and church teaching don’t come close to righteousness. That’s why we praise our God every day. Our All Saints closing hymn perfectly stated, “You are not ashamed to own us. We give thanks and praise, O God.” We’ll never be good enough and yet he calls us his own.
When we’re real honest, we know we fall short daily, in little ways and in big ways, in life choices and in the way we interact with, talk to, or talk about our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. And yet, like the Pharisees, we preach to others like we don’t fall short. Jesus says they preach but they do not practice. I think we practice… some things. And then we go forward and only preach the things we do really well. If we make an effort to attend daily Mass for a month, you betcha we’re telling everybody how they are supposed to attend daily Mass. If we follow all of the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality, you know we’re judging everybody else who doesn’t. If we choose to live in a small home and give the rest of our money away, you know we’re going to tell everyone else that they are sinning by living in a large home. If we had 10 children, breastfed every single one, chose to sew our own clothes and never shop at a mall, had dinner on the table at 6pm sharp every night of the year, never raised our voices, and never once turned on a television our entire life, you know we’re judging the ones who did all that but only had 9 children! I jest, but the truth is, we preach what we practice well and often, what comes naturally to us, what our hearts enjoy doing, what is easiest for us to follow. We don’t preach what we fail to practice. And therein lies the problem. We’re missing the humility to read the words of Jesus, apply them to our life, and see that none of us, not a single one, is living up to His call in the gospel to follow Him.
If that’s the case, maybe we should stop tying heavy burdens around other people’s shoulders. Maybe it’s time to stop judging others for the ways in which they fall short. Could it not be that they are following Jesus’ words in a different way, in a way in which we fail to follow?
So, as we reflect this week, we ask ourselves some direct questions:
Are we tying burdens around family members or friends to live their lives how we believe they should be lived, rather than recognizing our own failure to live up to Jesus’ calling?
Do we preach only what we practice well?
As Jesus describes the Pharisees, do we perform our works to be seen by others? Do we get a sense of satisfaction or ego boost by knowing we are more ‘righteous’ than others?
Do we think we can gain God’s favor by following all of the laws, teachings, and commandments? Have we forgotten about Jesus’ response to the rich man to give up EVERYTHING and follow him?
On the flip side, do we feel overwhelmed by Jesus’ call so we don’t even try to follow it and instead choose to sit back and live a life of comfort instead of courage?
Are we living humbly? Do we recognize that we will always fall short and that it is only by God’s grace that he calls us his own?
Do we choose to point to others and call them the Pharisees rather than asking if maybe we might be the Pharisees?
Do we spend more time worrying about our neighbor’s faith journey rather than our own?
If we can answer all of these questions or read our Gospel reading and feel absolutely no conviction, than my guess is that we need to read the last line again one more time: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
When we truly humble ourselves, it can be overwhelming that God would choose to have mercy on us fallen humans with our arrogant hearts and our judgmental minds. What a merciful God!
“You are not ashamed to own us. We give thanks and praise, O God.”