Deacon Cornell’s Homily


Malachi 1:14b-2:2b,8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9,13
Matthew 23:1-12


October 29-30, 2005, Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Today's Gospel is one of a few passages that I think of when I hear someone talk about "What would Jesus Do?" in a way that implies Jesus was always Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild, as the hymn goes. As this passage shows, Jesus was never reluctant to point out where people were missing the mark, especially those in leadership positions.

As is true with all the Gospel passages we hear during Mass, we are to listen not just as we would to something someone said a long time ago to someone else, but to listen for how what is being said applies to us here and now. In the first part of today's passage Jesus is telling his listeners, and us, how the religious leaders of his time were missing the mark. So it is tempting for r most of us to sit back and just enjoy listening to the clergy getting taken down a notch. Of course I can't do that because I am clergy. All of us who are clergy, or leaders in any capacity, need to be on constant guard that we don't let ourselves get carried away with position and authority and privilege. Jesus is pretty specific about how to measure whether we are missing the mark: if the clergy become a burden to God's people rather than a help to them.

We Catholics are especially prone to getting carried away with position and responsibility, over the course of the last 1600 or 1700 years of the Church's history, and very specifically here in Boston at the present time. Jesus in quick to point out, however, that we need to distinguish between the failure of some and the failure of the Church as Church. For instance, the Catholic Church is often criticized for having laws that burden people. While it is true that the Church has very definite laws, they are intended to guide and help people. And there is a principle that is built into the system of Church law called Epikeia, a Greek word that means reasonableness. Epikeia says that whenever the universality of the law would burden a person in a particular application, the person applying the law should use reasonableness to ensure that it is not a burden.

I would suggest that one of the reasons that we Catholics so often find ourselves in situations where the leadership places heavy burdens on the people, is that we have developed a dysfunctional image of what the church is supposed to look like.

One way to visualize this is to picture the structure of the church in relation to God. In many conversations I have had about this, the structure most people come up with is a pyramid structure with God above the tip of the pyramid with the pope at the top, followed by the bishops, then the priests, then the deacons and religious and other ministers, and finally at the bottom, the people of God. Given this structure, in order for the people to get closer to their God, they must either go through the higher layers or lift up all the layers above them. In God's plan, the structure is still a pyramid, and the pope is still at the tip of the pyramid, followed next by the bishops and the priests and the deacons and the religious and finally by the people but the pyramid is flipped on its tip so that God is at the top and directly under God are the people of God. The pope and the all the other clergy and religious are under the people of God lifting them up closer to God. They are carrying the people rather than the other way around.

Deacons get a little more help in avoiding getting carried away than most other clergy and religious because most of us are married, and have families who are not the least bit shy about taking us down a peg or two when needed. I feel doubly blessed because I work in a community that also chips in with suggestions for improvement. After the last Generations of Faith adult sessions, two people dropped notes in the suggestion box that said that they found my approach to participating in the session to be offensive to the point of them not wanting to come back. While it hurts to hear that, I am grateful that they took the time and the risk to voice that feeling so that I have a chance to reflect on how I do what I do so I can be more of a stepping stone than a stumbling block to people genuinely trying to deepen their faith. I would hope that you will all continue to take the time and effort to suggest improvements and offer constructive criticism. And I would urge you each to consider taking part in some of the ministries that the Stewardship committee will be offering next week at the Masses.

And while Jesus is directing his criticism towards the clergy or the leadership, he is very explicit about not using their failures as an excuse to stop being a good disciple. One of the saddest parts for me in administering the Archdiocesan website is to read the comments some people send in that say, basically, because I don't agree with this decision or action, I am no longer going to attend mass, or contribute to the Sunday Collections or the Catholic Appeal, or send my children to religious education. Jesus is very blunt about this when he says we must continue to carry out our responsibility even if our leadership is failing at theirs. In fact, if we remember the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, when one part of the body is failing, it is even more important to build up other parts of the body to compensate.

And then as Jesus turns to address us directly, we start to realize that even the first part is directed at all of us. In some fashion, and in some setting, each one of us is a leader or a teacher, whether formally in our jobs or as parents or grandparents, or informally as friends and siblings and co-workers. At times we all are called to lead or to teach, especially by the way that we live and give example. Do we live out this call so as to help others become closer to God, or so as to be a burden, dragging people down and away from God?

I pray that we have the courage to be humble: to recognize truly both our gifts and our faults, and to put both in service to God, so that instead of being a burden or an obstacle to those around us, we lift up them up so they can get closer to God.

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