Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
First reading: Mal 1:14-2:2, 8-10
Responsoral Psalm: 131: 1-3
Second reading: 1 Thes 2:7-9, 13
Gospel: Mt 23:1-12
By Jem Sullivan
Servant love is the heart of missionary discipleship. We may teach the truth effectively, share the moral demands of the Gospel boldly, and partake in public and personal prayer with devotion. But without love, these count for nothing. This is the challenge of God’s word today.
St. Paul was a living example of servant love that inspires missionary discipleship. In today’s second reading, St. Paul recalls how he accompanied the Thessalonians with affection and selflessness. He speaks of proclaiming the Gospel, using the image of the gentleness of a mother’s love.
St. Paul lovingly proclaimed the word of God to this community. He gives thanks to Jesus for their faith in God’s word. Like us, those early Christians accepted the Gospel not as a human word but as the living word of God.
Similarly, the prophet Malachi calls the temple priests to faithfulness to God’s word. They will be held responsible for weakening the people’s faith.
Dominated for centuries by foreign powers, the Israelites tended to fall away from religious practice while assimilating into the cultures and religions of their rulers. The Pharisees developed a response to this tendency to religious indifference with their strict observance of the law.
They saw themselves as superior to others, on whom they looked with disdain and condemnation. This is perhaps why Jesus argues with the Pharisees over the inner meaning of God’s law in contrast to their legalistic and hypocritical approach to faith.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has some harsh words for the Pharisees as he sees beyond their pious, outward appearances. And the picture he paints is not pretty.
The Pharisees did not practice what they preached. They made things impossibly demanding for others without offering to help the overburdened. They sought their own glory and prestige, rather than the glory of God. They were full of themselves, lacking in true charity and compassion in dealing with others.
The Pharisees’ real error was blindness to faults. Their pride and self-centered ambition prevented them from seeing their need for inner conversion. They were consumed with their own supposed goodness, piety and excellence. But what good is piety and religious devotion if it does not make us humble, compassionate and loving?
Popular culture values outward appearances. Image is everything. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of one’s appearance. But if that becomes all we ever do, then we are on shaky ground. For what use is a good outward appearance without interior love?
“The greatest among you must be your servant” and “whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:11-12). Jesus presents these paradoxes even as he warns against the Pharisees’ example.
This is our challenge even today. To discover that servant love is more pleasing to God than self-love and self-promotion. Jesus’ servant love is the model for St. Paul, the saints of the church, and each of us as we strive to serve others in humility.
This is the path to genuine holiness and true human happiness. Servant love makes us authentic missionary disciples of Jesus who say together in faith, “speak to me, Lord.”
“We must never forget that true power, at every level, is service.” — Pope Francis
Sullivan is secretary for Catholic education of the Archdiocese of Washington.