For the past several weeks, the evangelist, Matthew has focused on several run-ins that Jesus had with the Pharisees, Scribes, Herodians, and scholars of the law. Today, he shows that he has had enough of their calumny and goes on a vigorous attack of their perfidy. In very strong and unambiguous terms he castigates their hypocrisy and religious ostentation. What can be more damaging than summarizing someone’s behavior with the words: “Do what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practice what they preach… Everything they do is to attract attention.” Add that to the tongue-lashing that the prophet Malachi gave the priests of his day and you’ll find many sitting in the pews saying: “Yes, tell them.”
We love to hear criticisms of other people, don’t we? It gives a certain glow of self-satisfaction to hear about the hypocrisy of, especially religious figures and other people in authority. Yes, Jesus appears a camper with us today, and with wit and perspicacity he takes up our cry against the vainglory, pretensions and hypocrisy of so-called religious leaders who lack authenticity and simple human heart. You must be especially pleased at how He mows down those we call Fathers in our Churches, aren’t you? Jesus’ rebuke can fan the fires of anticlericalism seated deep inside. Yet, such words are important because more than a few clergymen parallel the ostentatiousness in the Scribes and Pharisees. If we dare take a good look at the mirror, we can see in ourselves the portrait that Jesus paints about the Scribes and Pharisees. But before you go too far with stereotyping priests and other leaders, you—a baptized believer—better take a close look, too, at yourself. You may be surprised that in you also, lives the same portrait of a Pharisee. The mere fact that you feel that glow of self-satisfaction from Jesus’ criticisms of others betrays your feeling of mendacity and includes you in the portrait that Jesus draws.
Amidst all that gloom and villainy, our Lord counsels us not to be deterred by the flawed behaviors of the messengers. Their pitfalls, though posing some hindrance for faith, should not be an excuse for refusing to follow the truth of the message they bring. If you’re waiting for that perfect priest, missionary or preacher whose every word would match his deeds, in public and private, before you’ll believe, be ready to wait for a very long time; and be prepared to miss every opportunity for your spiritual advancement. Unfortunately, such gurus either do not exist or are hard to find. The truth can come from the most unlikely source and still remain the truth. God still can write with crooked lines. This might perhaps account for why Mother Teresa said that she would prefer as spiritual director a priest filled with insight than a holy priest. The ideal would be an insightful and holy priest. Even St. Paul recognizes knowing what he should do, but admits that his weaknesses prevent him from carrying out the good he desires; yet, he consistently enjoins all to strive for perfection (Rom 7:19).
The three pitfalls that Jesus observed in the Scribes and Pharisees, namely, binding heavy burdens on others, attracting attention to oneself, and seeking honorific positions, are in no way limited to priests. He was dissecting the clear self-centeredness in every human heart. The Stanford prison experiment and the popular Milgram experiment used to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power show that under strict conditions, most people will exert dominance over others, even when it’s uncalled for. Hence, we wear Phylacteries like the Pharisees when our bumper sticker, scapular, and other religious ornaments shout out, and are used to promote our status as religious people, rather than as guide and motivation to a sincere life of prayer. Our goal should always be to improve our standing before God rather than society.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo