sabato 4 novembre 2017

«Dicunt et non faciunt»

It is more than one month that, in Sunday gospels, we witness controversies between Jesus and the religious leaders of the Jews. Up to now, Jesus has criticized them indirectly, especially through parables; now instead he starts to attack them frontally, reproaching them with hypocrisy. Chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel is an indictment of the scribes and the Pharisees. A substantial portion of it consists in a series of seven “woes” against them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites…” for this and that reason.

Today we have read the first twelve verses of the chapter, where Jesus is not addressing the scribes and the Pharisees, but the crowds and his disciples. We could consider these verses as a kind of portrait of the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus tells his disciples that the scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses, that is, they now hold the authority that once belonged to Moses; they are practically his successors. But it would seem that Jesus regards them as usurpers, persons who occupy that position illegally. That does not mean that what they say is wrong; their teaching is good, and so it is to be observed. The problem with them is their behavior, “for they preach but they do not practice (dicunt et non faciunt).” Therefore, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” This is the first aspect of the hypocrisy of scribes and Pharisees—the inconsistency between teaching and acting.

Another facet of their hypocrisy stands in the motive for their conduct: “All their works are performed to be seen.” Which means that, even when they do something good, they do not act this way because it is right in itself, but just to be praised by others. Do you remember what Jesus had said in the sermon on the mount? “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others … When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them … When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others be fasting” (Mt 6:2.5.16). Those hypocrites Jesus was speaking of are the scribes and Pharisees.

Now he adds further details of their vanity. First, “they widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” Phylacteries were small leather boxes containing verses of Scripture; garments were usually decorated with tassels or fringes. Jesus does not condemn this use, that was prescribed by the law—he also had a cloak with a fringe—he rather denounces the misuse of a holy tradition just to make a show of piety. Second, “they love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues.” They always want to stand out and be revered by all. Third, “they love … greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’” All have to bow down before them and recognize their authority.

Well, Jesus uses this portrayal of the scribes and Pharisees to teach his disciples how not to behave. “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’ … Call no one on earth your father … Do not be called ‘Master.’” Why? Because there is only one Teacher, one Father, one Master; we are all brothers. Even in this case, Jesus is not condemning the use of these titles in itself—we actually use them even in the Church—but the pride that could be hidden behind them. If we have right to it, we can be called father or master; but we should never forget that there is only one Father—God—and one Master—Jesus Christ. Indeed, as the book of Sirach says, the greater one is, the more he must humble himself (Sir 3:18). Similarly, Jesus says, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Humility is the secret of true greatness, and it should be the distinguishing mark of the disciples of the one “who, though he was in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant … and humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death” (Phil 2:6.7.8).