Christ has many difficult teachings. He tells us that adultery can be committed in the heart (Mt. 5:28), that we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood (Jn. 6:53), and that whoever is not with him is against him (Mt. 12:30). He calls us to pick up our crosses and follow him (Mk. 8:34) and to pray for and bless those who persecute us (Mt. 5:44). A teaching from today’s gospel can keep company with these other challenging commands. Jesus tells his disciples to listen to the Pharisees.
These are the same Pharisees that Jesus calls “foxes” and “white washed tombs” in other parts of the gospels. In the verses immediately following this command Jesus absolutely lays into the Pharisees. He warns his disciples that they don’t practice what they preach, they burden people, they work for their own exaltation, and they seek to be honored. Essentially, he tells them to follow hypocrites… yikes!
This begs the question, if they are terrible examples, why does he command his disciples to listen to them? Scripture tells us it is because they sit on the chair of Moses. Translation: they have authority. This is a hard pill for us to swallow. We will have to listen to and obey people who are giant hypocrites, but hypocrites with legitimate authority; accepting that their teaching is true, while their choices are wrong. This balance will grate at us and even repel some of us.
I don’t think it stops there though. Besides just making a claim to authority, I think Christ is drawing us to face another difficult truth. We are all guilty of hypocrisy. This ties into the closing verses of the gospel where he says, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” If you exalt yourself and elevate yourself above others, you will be humbled. Your hypocrisy will be known. You will become the next Pharisee (congratulations!). But, if you humble yourself, if you genuinely recognize your own hypocrisy then you throw yourself upon the grace of God. You rely not on your love, but God’s love. You seek not your will, but God’s will. The paradox of humility seen in this gospel is the reality that when we recognize the greatness of our need and allow ourselves to be consumed by the vastness of his grace, he can do great things through us.
We even celebrate that paradox with our Memorial of the Queenship of Mary. A peasant girl who claimed no title for herself, but handmaid, is celebrated as a queen, today, because her son sits on the Davidic throne (in the Davidic kingdom the queen was not the mother of the king’s children, but of the king himself). Unlike the Pharisees her work was done over a lifetime, for her Son’s and the Father’s glory, and often out of the spotlight.
So today, I want to offer you a challenge to help you fight your hypocritical side. First, recognize your great need and approach the Lord’s mercy in the sacrament of confession. Second, ease another’s burdens, in secret if possible, or at least in private. It doesn’t have to be big, but all glory and praise goes to the Master not the disciple. Lastly, pray for the grace to continue to follow the Lord in discipleship, even when that means accepting the authority of a hypocrite.