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31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

November 5, 2017

The diatribe which in Matthew’s Gospel confronts Jesus to the Pharisees and the chiefs of the tribes finds its climax in this chapter 23, from which we read today the first twelve verses.

In this first part, Jesus addresses the crowd and his disciples (Mt 23, 1), while, in a second part (Mt 23, 13-33), he addresses directly the Pharisees, announcing trouble to them: the expression “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites…” returns seven times; at the end, the chapter closes announcing the sending of “prophets, wise men and scribes”(Mt 23, 34- 36) who will all be rejected and killed. So, a sentence of condemnation will fall upon “this generation”. And there will be something like a recapitulation of the whole evil which has been committed, of all the invitations to salvation which were also refused, at their time.

Why such a severe judgment on Pharisees and Scribes?

Certainly not because they would have departed from the sound doctrine, from the ancestral traditions; in this, they are quite competent and trustworthy. This is why Jesus says clearly to the crowd: Do what they teach. “Observe and keep all that they tell you” (Mt 23, 3). The problem is not what they say, but rather what they do and what they fail to do. Or, better, Jesus criticizes the dichotomy between their words and their deeds.

In order to be more precise, three are Jesus’ charges against them

“They say but do not do” (Mt 23, 3); one remembers here the parable of the two sons (Mt 21, 28- 32), addressed precisely to the Pharisees, where they were compared to the son who says “Yes” to the father, but later does not go to work in the vineyard. One is not dealing here just with inconsistency, because the context of the parable is that of a relation between father and son; one deals here with a lacking relation with the One who calls and sends, with the One who entrusts his sons with the duty of life; we are dealing with a lack of confidence in the Father.

The Pharisees are not the only ones who say and do not do; the second charge is that they oblige the others to do what they themselves do not do (Mt 23, 4).

If the first charge, Jesus states a lacking relation with the Father; here we are dealing with a lacking relation with the brothers. A relation based on power, on a misused power, a power which makes the life of the others miserable, difficult and tiresome, instead of being a power which sets free and gives life.

Finally, the third charge (Mt 23, 5) is still more serious. It goes directly to the heart of the problem, and concerns the motivation of their actions: “All their actions they do in order to be admired by people”.

They “use” God and the others only as spectators of their bravura, of their works. Thus, the Pharisees would be people who reach salvation by themselves. Later, they need someone who admires their bravura.

Faced with this, it is interesting to see how Jesus reacts.

He does not invite the crowd and His disciples to be better, to be more      consistent than the Pharisees, or not to fall like them in the deception of appearance and of pride. No.

He calls on them to have another style of relationship: “But you are not to be called “rabbi”, for you have one Master, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth “father”, for one is your Father, the heavenly.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Christ (Mt 23,8-10).

He asks them to have a real relational mode, in which one does not obtain salvation alone, but he welcomes gratefully life, as a gift from the one only Father, who offers it free to everyone, and wants it be shared with the others, who are all equally brothers.

A lifestyle where true greatness is hidden, not one which seems to be in the most important seats at banquets of the synagogues and squares (Mt 23, 6), but that revealed in every humble gesture of service: “The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt 23, 11).

To learn this lifestyle there is only one teacher (Mt 23, 8), who “before the Passover Festival…

 During The Last Supper … got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…” (Jn 13, 1-5).

After this act, He explained that He, who is the teacher and the Lord, had washed the disciples’ feet, and that they should do the same to each other (Jn 13, 14-15).

And He then added words that should be good enough for the Pharisees of today’s Gospel, the Pharisees of all times, for us: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (Jn 13, 17).

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