Franciscan Friar Fr. Paul Gallagher reflects on the Gospel text for the Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time. Do you strive for holiness? How is that expressed in your daily life?
The content is edited by Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Anne Marie Lom and Joe Thiel. The excerpts from the Sunday readings are prepared by Joe Thiel. To read or download the complete pdf with excerpts for your prayer, please click here Franciscan Gospel Reflection November 5 2023 Excerpts are from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Photo: Antiquary, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
In last Sunday’s Gospel text, Jesus was asked by one of the Pharisees what was the greatest commandment. He responded citing two familiar texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, making love of God and love of neighbor the two most important commandments in the whole law.
Following that Gospel text, Matthew describes an incident where Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. Jesus takes their answer and uses another passage of the Hebrew scripture to demonstrate that their answer is not correct. The text ends “No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:46)
Scripture scholars believe that the hostile relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees is more representative of the community for which Matthew is writing his Gospel than Jesus’ own relationship with them. Some even believe that Jesus never delivered this address against the scribes and the Pharisees but that it represents the early Christians’ relationships to the scribes and Pharisees after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus seems to enjoy a good relationship with at least some of the Pharisees. Even here in this text, Jesus’ statement that his disciples should observe the teachings of the Pharisees is a compliment that indicates that Jesus believes they know the scriptures and approves of the way they interpret them. The more critical attitude toward them is reflected in Jesus’ statement that they are not to be imitated because they do not live by their own teachings. Jesus calls them “hypocrites” or actors eight times in the course of Matthew’s Gospel.
Among the Pharisees, there were those who believed every law was important and must be observed. Others taught that some laws were heavy (serious) and other were light. The text indicates that following every law could be “heavy” burden. In a culture where one’s worth and existence is dependent on the community, some recognition of the community is vital. Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and the Pharisees can be best understood as excessive seeking of esteem and recognition. Even in this culture where maintaining honor and status in the community was important, there was also a sense of never wanting to appear to be expecting or wanting recognition.
Toward the end of the text, Jesus addresses the disciples directly. Here his concern is about the scribes and Pharisees’ use of titles. To call someone “rabbi” was a title of honor, which could be translated as “my Lord.” “Father” was a term of respect given to elders. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is used only in reference to God. Jesus taught his followers to call God “Father” (Matthew 6:9). In this section of the text, Jesus is asking his followers to forgo the search for the esteem of others. Rather, they should be people who practice what they preach, lighten the burden of the law for those who are trying to be faithful to God, and prefer positions of service without status.
- Do you strive for holiness? How is that expressed in your daily life?
- Are there others around you whose dedication to holiness you admire? What is it about their life that seems authentic?
- Are there also others whose striving for holiness does not seem to be authentic? Why?
- Are there people in your community who lighten those whose lives seem to be heavily burdened?
- Are there people in your community whose sense of holiness creates burdens for others?
- When you think about Jesus in the Gospels, does the Jesus in this text add a facet that is less familiar or overlooked?
- Can you take some time to talk to God about your efforts to be holy and how that affects you and those around you, or some other aspect of your relationships with God or your neighbors that arose within you as you reflected on this Gospel passage?