Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Great hypocrites are the real atheists, someone said. They clothe themselves with the trappings of religion, but their hearts are untouched by it. In this way they make it appear to the world that religion has no heart.
The Pharisees were a rigorously pious sect within Judaism. But Jesus was in constant conflict with them and called them hypocrites. In asking us to read the above passage today, the Liturgy clearly wants to send a message to their successors: the clerical and other religious figures of our day.
It’s never a good time to be a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is harder to practise than almost any other vice. You can speak evil of your neighbours for half an hour a day, you can be a glutton for an hour or two, but you have to be a hypocrite all day long. Has it any redeeming features? Yes, one. If you want to be cured, that is very easily done. It is cured by the mere acknowledgement of it. If you say, “I have a terrible temper,” that won’t cure you of your temper; but if you say, “I’m a hypocrite,” you’re no longer a hypocrite. (A real hypocrite would never say, “I’m a hypocrite.”) Or, more painfully, if someone else proves you a hypocrite, you can no longer carry it off. There is a great cleansing going on, and the Church is all the better for it. Lamenting the modern age is a fashion with many people, but the modern age has one great virtue: it provides little or no cover for hypocrites.
Office and hypocrisy and flattery go together. There is less guaranteed respect for office now than there used to be. Someone who is propelled into some high office – possibly to his or her own surprise – feels inadequate for the job, and therefore begins to put on an act. There is some kind of deep unrecognised humility in this: someone described hypocrisy as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The flattery that still follows the job (to some degree) drives that humility further into the shadows, and there is no longer any easy way out. Exposure then is the only way.
“The greatest among you must be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Gospel turns everything upside down, or rather the right way up. The greatest is the least, by the very fact of thinking he’s the greatest; and the least is the greatest, by the very fact of thinking he’s the least. For a Christian everything is on the ground. The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin ‘humus’, which means earth. St Augustine said that God accepts sacrifices only from the altar of humility. A woman told the zen master Shunryu Suzuki that she found it difficult to mix meditation practice with the demands of rearing a family. “I feel I’m trying to climb a ladder; but for every step upwards, I slip backwards two steps.” “Forget the ladder!” he told her. “In meditation everything is right here on the ground.”
Because everything is on the ground there are no bigwigs of any account. “Call no one on earth your father.”