Wednesday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time
Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary
October 13, 2021
As medical students learn the science and hopefully the art of medicine, they are also alerted, I would suppose, to the dangers of their chosen profession – not only malpractice but also getting inappropriately involved with patients, becoming emotionally overwrought, burnout, and the like. Before beginning a job in the construction industry, I should imagine that one receives thorough training about its occupational hazards.
Today’s readings constitute a warning about the occupational hazards that we face – we who are already ordained and you who are in formation. Those hazards are hypocrisy, infidelity, and presumption. Because such hazards can be fatal in the priesthood and fatal to our eternal destiny, we do well to focus on them this afternoon, while praying for the grace we need to eliminate them, to root them out of our hearts, as thoroughly as possible.
Let’s begin with hypocrisy. The reading from Romans and the passage from Luke pull in the same direction. St. Paul excoriated his Jewish converts for sitting in judgment of the Gentiles even though they were guilty of the same things. Instead of ‘walking humbly with God’, those Christians accounted themselves morally superior to the Gentiles. Their criticisms of the Gentiles, in fact, may have been accurate but they were wildly inaccurate in assessing their own moral culpability. Paul minced no words in reminding those Christians that God would judge them according to their works.
In the Gospel, Jesus accused his host and his fellow dinner guests of hypocrisy. Slavishly attentive to the precepts of the Law, they ignored the intent of the Law, viz., the opening of the heart to God’s love and a salutary fear of his just judgment. Instead, they paraded around, giving the impression of being ‘holier than thou’ while at the same time harboring evil in their hearts. Jesus compares those devotees of ritual cleanliness to “unseen graves” over which people unknowingly walk.
St. Paul’s errant converts and the Pharisees felt they were keen judges of character, but in fact they were morally blind to their own faults, to such an extent that they sat in judgment of others while being guilty of the same faults or worse. What a warning to those of us who preach to others, who judge the sinfulness of others in confession, or who exercise authority. We must continually ask for the grace to see ourselves as God see us, and to manifest to those we serve that we too are disciples on the way, rather than paragons of perfection who can look askance at others.
Continuing our tour of occupational hazards, we turn to infidelity. Of course, infidelity and hypocrisy are travelling companions. Those guilty of hypocrisy often think that they are very faithful but underneath the surface they are in fact unfaithful. What’s more, infidelity can be masked by careful attention to laws and duties. Thus, the Pharisees are keen on paying tithes on various herbs but less than keen when it comes to the fundamental response of wholehearted love to the God “whose love is everlasting.” These Pharisees no doubt thought of themselves as very faithful to the Torah but in fact were unfaithful to its central tenets, viz., love of God and neighbor.
In the same way, we who are ordained and you who are aspiring can be attentive to the externals of our faith while being profoundly unfaithful to God and the Church. Just as Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for observing the finer points of the Law, so too, attention to externals, in and of itself, is not a bad thing – but it becomes a bad thing when it substitutes for a loving relationship with Christ, and for the continuous purification of the heart that you and I must undergo. So too, using our status as bishops, priests, or seminarians for any purpose other than the advancement of the Gospel – is an instance of deep infidelity – be it financial gain, career advancement, or personal aggrandizement. Pope Francis calls this out as “spiritual worldliness” – and another name for it is “clericalism” and still another is “entitlement”.
Let us conclude this cheery trio of hazards with a word about presumption. St. Paul was unhappy with his Jewish converts for seeing their faith as a kind of insurance policy that guaranteed God’s favorable judgment. God’s forbearance and mercy, he reminds us, is not an invitation to immorality. Those who so regard it, hold God’s love and mercy in low esteem. Rather, divine mercy is an invitation for thoroughgoing conversion.
If asked, the Pharisees in the Gospel may well have said that they would one day reside in the bosom of Abraham, not the netherworld. They assumed that their positions of honor on earth would translate into positions of honor in the life to come – but it is not necessarily so!
The great sin of our times is in fact the sin of presumption. For many, God’s unconditional love means they have no need to repent. Even if we clearly understand the conception of presumption, we may nonetheless make secret deals with evil in our heart of hearts, all the while assuring ourselves that, in the end, God won’t mind too much. After all, how bad can purgatory be? We may even swear on a stack of Denzinger Schönmetzer’s that our positions in the Church do not guarantee us eternal salvation, while at the same time convincing ourselves inwardly that our daily nearness to the things of God really is an ace in the hole.
Aren’t you glad I came today to deliver such a cheerful message? So let me leave you with this. Having done with hypocrisy, infidelity, and presumption is hard work but dear brothers it is the path to freedom, joy, and effectiveness in the priesthood. Throwing off these shackles gives you and me the freedom we need to open our hearts widely, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to Jesus Christ, to encounter him, to love him, to allow him to transform us inwardly, such that God the Father will see and love in us what he sees and loves in His Son. When that happens, we become the good and holy priests the Church needs. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love.