Sunday, November 5, 2017



They preach one thing and practice another.
Matthew 23

We are used to thinking of Jesus as “meek and humble of heart,” “hugger of children” and “comforter of the afflicted.” So it’s a little more than unsettling to see Jesus throwing a fit, but he is really steamed in this gospel story. He is letting it rip, and the people he is ripping are not the simple ordinary people and their sins, but the fakes and phonies of the religious establishment who abused simple believers with their of misuse of religious power and their obsession with titles, robes and personal status. This long chapter is stinging with focused criticism. He calls them “fools,” “blind guides,” “a nest of snakes,” “white washed tombs,” “lust-filled frauds,” to name a few!

As a card-carrying member of the religious establishment, I am always conscious that the most sustained criticism in the whole of scripture is not directed to your side of the pulpit, but to my side of the pulpit. For that very reason, I go to great pains to include my own sins and failing when I talk about those of others.  This passage alone is enough to keep every priest and minister humble!  All of us ought to have a copy of it pasted to our bathroom mirrors so that we can be reminded of it every time we put on a collar.

One of the things that is painfully obvious in the recent sexual abuse scandal is the amount of anger that was unleashed at priests and bishops who have harshly condemned the sexual sins of others, while holding onto their own dark secrets. Father Nerinckx, founder of the Sisters of Loretto, put it this way, “Those who make the rules should also be the first to keep them!”  Those who are angry can, I am sure, resonate with chapter 23 of this gospel!

I think people expect us to set a good example, to be what we claim to be and do a good job, but I don’t think people expect us to be perfect. It occurs to me that it is not failures, but hypocrisy, that drives people crazy. When a former president was exposed for his indiscretions, the Speaker of the House was loudly condemning him, only to be driven out of office himself for having an extra marital affair.  The famous televangelist Jimmy Swaggart used to draw great crowds ranting and raving about the evils of sexual promiscuity, only to be arrested with a prostitute himself.  I knew a preacher in southern Kentucky who ranted and raved on the radio about “all the sex on TV and in films.” He even staged a big bonfire in front of his church to burn TVs, women's pants suits and dirty books. The week after the big bonfire, he ran off with the church’s teenage secretary.    

 Jesus did not condemn people for being weak, or even for being sinners, but for being “hipocrites,” for pretending to be religious. 

Most priests and bishops, like most Catholics, are trying their best to be faithful disciples and good priests. One holy person, a person like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa, can do great good, just as one unholy person can do great harm.

Some people have used the scandal as an excuse for being an inactive Catholic – tempting, but certainly not a very heroic response.  Just as we cannot sit back and let Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa be holy for all of us, we cannot let the failure of leadership drive us out of the church. We priests need to be holy, yes, but you have to be holy too. We priests need to clean up the priesthood, yes, but our membership needs to clean up its act too. Religious leaders must avoid hypocrisy, but you too have to rid yourselves of religious hypocrisy. We are all called to be holy and we are called to be holy, even if everybody else in the church fails to be holy! The sins, faults or hypocrisy of others can never give us an excuse to quit, give up or drop out on our own paths to holiness! We are called to be good, no matter who is bad. It’s that simple!   

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