The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time||October 30, 2005|
In a way this Gospel is a very dangerous Gospel, the one we have just heard, because it can be so easily misinterpreted and has been over the centuries. If you go on in the Gospel you find those parts that I'm sure you're familiar with where Jesus says, "Woe to you teachers of the law, you pharisees, you hypocrites." He calls them, "blind fools." Then he calls them "whited sepulchres." It's harsh, this chapter 23. It has been used over the centuries to instigate within the Christian community sometimes a very virulent or hostile animosity against the Jewish people. I suppose we would have to say it culminated with the Holocaust committed by a Christian nation.
Forty years ago at the Vatican Council, for the first time, in a very clear, powerful way the bishops at the time, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote a document called, "Nostra Aetate," "Our Times" or "Our Days," that very clearly, and I hope for all time to come, shows that there is no justification for anti-Semitism, for the hatred on the part of Christians for Jews. The Jews were not the killers of Jesus, the murderers of the son of God, that sometimes in the Christian tradition we've held them responsible for.
Well, what was Matthew doing then when he wrote this passage? Again I ask you to be very careful to try to understand what is happening here. Matthew was not actually recording the precise words of Jesus. I think we have come to understand that many times when we come to a Gospel lesson it's a matter of how a community many years later began to remember some of the things that Jesus said, what he did. Then they began to write it down. Matthew's Gospel was not written down until the 70s or the 80s, many years after Jesus had already died and risen from the dead. What was happening as Matthew was actually writing these passages -- and they are very harsh and hostile in a way -- Matthew was writing them for the leaders and the people of his own time. His own community had fallen away from the way of Jesus so quickly; that initial enthusiasm and energy and beautiful sense of community that the earliest Christians had were disappearing. Contrary to what Jesus said when he said, "No one should ever lord it over another," they were using power against one another and that beautiful sense of community that they had in the beginning -- that Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles as "No one was ever in need" because everybody looked out for one another -- that was being lost. The leaders of the communities were failing, and so it was these people that Matthew was writing about and to.
If you go to Mark's Gospel, which preceded Matthew's by quite some time and is probably more the original words of Jesus, there is only a couple of verses like these. Mark said that while Jesus was teaching, he also said to them, "Beware of those teachers of the Law who enjoy walking around in long robes and being greeted in the marketplace, who like to occupy and reserve seats in the synagogue" and so on. It's two short verses and not filled with any of the anger, it seems, or the hostility that was in Matthew. Mark remembered something that Jesus had said about how teachers have to be more humble and those who are the leaders have to be servants of all. Matthew expanded on that and tried to make a point with the community of his time. "Look, we're falling away from the way of Jesus. Jesus told us we all have to serve one another, we are all equal in freedom and dignity, there is no way for right to be used over one another, where one exerts power and lords it over another. That's not the way of Jesus. Matthew is trying to get them to understand once more and to reform their community.
Of course it had happened before. That's why we had the first lesson today reminding us that when God had chose the Jewish people to be God's own people, had made a covenant with them, there were times when they sell short also. That is why we have the passage from Malachi where he is speaking out against the leaders trying to call them back. "Lead the people by serving the people." That is what Malachi was saying. If we come forward in the church's history after Matthew, we understand readily that there were many times when there were failures on the part of the church, especially the church leadership.
I guess we should most clearly look at what's happening in our own times, right now. It does seem we have a failure of leadership. The terrible scandals that have happened in the church and that have truly hurt the church in many, many ways in this country and in other countries happened because the leaders ignored what was going on or made excuses for what was going on or even covered up what was going on. We're all aware of the terrible costs that it brought to our community, to our church.
But there are other ways in which we need to call our leaders back to be the kind of leaders that Jesus wanted and called at the beginning. The synod has just completed its work in Rome, a gathering of bishops from around the world to discuss important questions. For this particular synod it was the Eucharist, its place in the church, what it should mean for all of us, how important it is that every community have a Eucharist -- a chance to assemble around a table of the Lord and celebrate the Eucharist. At the beginning of the synod, one of the bishops from the Philippines spoke about the terrible shortage of priests. How can you have Eucharist if you don't have priests? He said the first Sunday after he was ordained a number of years ago, he had to celebrate nine Masses. And it hasn't gotten any better since. It's gotten worse. Here in our diocese we're closing churches, closing parishes. That's happening all over the country. The bishops at the synod had an opportunity.
I was thinking as I read St. Paul today that they should have remembered how Paul and those with him served. Paul told us, "Remember our labor and toil. When we preached the Gospel we worked day and night so as not to be a burden to you." Part of the reason we're afraid to ordain married men is the fact that it's going to be so expensive. How will the church finance all of this? Well, Paul shows us -- he worked! He was a tent maker, and he still preached the Gospel, gave himself in total service to that community. It seems that our leadership in the church is afraid to not actually develop new ways, just go back to the way it was in the beginning. That's when the disciples who were the leaders celebrated the Eucharist. They were married people; even women celebrated, led the assembly. You go to the house churches as Paul describes in the epistles and you find women as leaders. Why can't our leaders today look at our problems and try to use the ingenuity, the creativity, the vision of the earliest disciples? Well, so far they haven't, and so we have to keep on demanding that they do in whatever way you can. There are groups who are doing that, and many of us are trying to do that.
But lest we take these scriptures today and only use them to sort of lash out at our official leaders, I think we have to remember, or I hope we will remember, that Jesus calls every one of us to be a leader in our community, the community of disciples. The Vatican Council made it so clear -- we are all equal in freedom and dignity within the church. That's why Jesus says there aren't any layers of leadership in the church where some are higher than others and so on. We don't have that in the community of Jesus. Everyone is equal in freedom and dignity. And Pope Paul, at the beginning of the second session of the Vatican Council in September of 1963, he said, "All of us are to serve one another and to serve the world with profound understanding, with sincere admiration, not despising but appreciating, not condemning but strengthening and saving." Pope Paul is telling us that the whole church has to hear what Jesus says about how his message is to be spread, how the churches of the world are to be served by the community of disciples, where everyone takes leadership. Because remember, for Jesus leadership is the one who serves. Do not lord it over one another, but the one who will be your leader must be the one who serves.
And we don't need a special role or office or special titles and so on to be servant/leaders in the church. We had a dramatic example this week. A very devout Christian woman who gave extraordinary leadership in our country, Rosa Parks. She did a very simple thing, she spoke the truth through her actions. She knew that she had as much dignity and as much worth as any other person. She spoke the truth by saying, "I will not move. I have every right to be here." And she was willing to pay a price for that, be arrested, be put in jail, to proclaim the truth of the dignity of every person. It was extraordinary leadership. You've heard her called this week the "mother of the civil rights movement." I heard John Lewis in an interview -- he's a representative in Congress -- I heard him say that he was a teenager at the time and he was really drawn by Rosa Parks' leadership. He wanted to do something too and his parents told him, "Oh no, no, don't. Don't get involved. It's the way it is and you just have to learn to live with it." I'm sure there were many people who were saying that. "It's the way it is. We can't do anything about it." But he looked to Rosa Parks' example and he said, "No!" And he began the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He said the other day in this interview, "I would not be in the U.S. Congress if it were not for Rosa Parks." And that's true. The extraordinary leadership of a woman who was a seamstress. Remember that she lived right around here, and she was a very humble, very unassuming kind of person, a beautiful person. But because she was willing to serve and to lead through her service even by giving her life, or at least, be put in jail, she helped to change our nation in a very dramatic way. That's the kind of leadership that any one of us could give, a leadership of service, a leadership of saying the truth not only in our words but in our actions, a leadership where we really stand up against what is wrong and proclaim the truth and try to live it.
I hope we will never take the passage of Matthew and use it as a way to foment anti-Semitism, hatred against the Jewish people. Instead, listen to these scriptures today as a call to be servant-leaders in our church, in our community. And like Rosa Parks some marvelous, extraordinary things will happen far beyond what we could ever imagine or envision if only we become the servant/leaders Jesus calls every one of us to be.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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