Father Mikael Schink S.J.
Sermon for the 31st Sunday in ordinary time (A)
2023-11-05, St. Eugenia Catholic Church
+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
in today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how a good teacher should be, and how we should relate to our teachers.
First, Jesus teaches us what a good teacher is with respect to doctrine. He says that ‘the scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses; you must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say’ (Matt. 23:3). But what if, as in the case of the Pharisees and the Scribes, our teachers convey a false doctrine?
We must consider that all teaching should be understood according to the intention of the teacher. But our primary teacher is God himself, who not only gives us the truths that we must believe in order to be saved exteriorly, but above all sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and so enlightens our minds interiorly, so that we can assent to his teaching in charity and understand it in wisdom. We must therefore be mindful of the teaching we receive and judge it in the light of the faith that we have received. As the Apostle Paul says in his Letter to the Galatians 1:8–9: ‘Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.’
This is also a lesson for the teachers of the Gospel, first of course the bishops and priests, who have a special ministry through the sacrament of Holy Orders, but we must remember, that we have all become ‘priests, prophets and kings’ through the sacrament of Baptism. This does not mean that there is no difference between the clergy and the laity, as the Second Vatican Council teaches us (Lumen Gentium 10), but it does mean that every faithful Christian has received a commission not only to receive the faith but also to hand it on to others and thus to be a teacher. This especially pertains to all who are in any position of authority with respect to others, as parents to children.
We must therefore all be mindful of what we say so that we transmit to others that which we have received from Jesus Christ. Similarly, we must be mindful of the way we live and behave, so that our conduct reflects the conduct of Christ. As Saint James says in his letter: ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’ (1:22); or saint Paul in First Corinthians: ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (10:33).
This brings us to the second characteristic of a good teacher, namely his way of life, for we teach not merely by our words but with our way of life. Jesus therefore admonishes the people to listen to the scribes and Pharisees, but then he adds: ‘Do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practise what they preach’ (Matt. 23:3). Then the Lord then goes on and gives us the reason for their wickedness, namely vain glory: ‘Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi’ (Matt. 23:5–7).
We must however make a distinction between the seeking of glory in itself, which concerns the virtue of magnanimity, and a perverse longing for one’s own glory, which pertains to the vice of vain glory. It is not a sin to consider one’s own excellence, for St. Paul says in First Corinthians: ‘We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the gifts bestowed on us by God’ (1 Cor. 2:12). It is therefore good that we know and consider the gifts God has given us. Nor is it a sin to long for the esteem of others, as the Lord himself says in the Gospel: ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works’ (Matt. 5:16).
It is not bad to long for the praise of what is good, only for the praise of what is vain or empty, and this pertains to the vice of vain glory. For instance, if one longs for the esteem of men and does not care about the approbation of God, one is certainly vain in one’s strivings. Similarly, it is vain to seek one’s own glory without referring it to God or the good of others. So, if we seek the esteem of others without somehow attributing it to God or without a thought for the good of others, we are certainly being vain. (ST II-II.132.1 co.).
This is also the reason Jesus gives for why the scribes and the Pharisees ‘tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders’ (Matt 23:4). They are only seeking to be greater than others and so try to inflate themselves and humiliate others. This was certainly a temptation also among the apostles as we can read in the Gospels that they were repeatedly arguing about who was the greatest (cf. Luke 9:46 and 22:24). And we should not make ourselves any illusions about the clergy of today as the successors of the apostles and their ministers. The words of John Chrysostom are still very true: ‘Take away the vainglory of the clergy, and you will cut off all other vices without labour’ (according to Aquinas, In Mt. 23:5, n. 1842).
The final mark of a good teacher that Jesus considers in today’s Gospel is the awareness that he has received all his knowledge and all his authority from God. As St. Paul says in First Corinthians: ‘What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’ (1 Cor. 4:7).
This is one way to understand Jesus’s prohibition not to call anyone Rabbi, or father or teacher, as he adds, ‘you have only one master’, ‘only one Father’, and ‘only one Teacher, the Christ’. For only the one can properly be called a teacher who has knowledge from himself and not from another, and in this way, there is only one teacher, namely God himself and as a consequence also Christ, who is God incarnate. All other teachers are teachers by participation and therefore not teachers in themselves but rather servants of God. Jesus therefore calls all of us to humility: ‘The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’
A particularly interesting case is that of fathers. Should not the male biological parent be called a ‘father’? Yes, but not primarily, only ministerially. This means that human fathers are primarily ministers to God’s Fatherhood. As the Fatherhood of God consists in the bringing forth and leading us to himself, so the fatherhood of earthly Fathers should consist in ministering to God by leading others to God. As in the case of teachers, there is a risk that one abuses the power one has been given by God to seek one’s own glory and will instead of being a servant to God.
Let us therefore turn to the Lord and ask him that we may all receive and teach his doctrine not only with our words but also with our lives and that we may be truly humble the preaching of the faith, so that we do not only seek our own glory but the glory of God. +Amen.