Deacon Cornellís Homily


Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13
Mt 23:1-12


October 29-30, 2011, Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

A Tale of Two Pharisees. That is what Deacon Michael Bulson of Salt Lake City calls today's readings in one of his books of homilies. We sometimes get the impressionthat the Pharisees and the scribes were bad people because we only hear about them in the Gospels when they are trying to trap Jesus. Jesus is pretty clear that what they are teaching is the right message. It is the way they are teaching it that Jesus has a problem with. They approach their teaching and the scriptures in a way that burdens people rather than lifting them up. That is one picture of a Pharisee that we tend to have almost exclusively.

The second reading gives us the tale of the Other Pharisee: Paul. Paul himself boasts of the fact that he is a Pharisee. We see in today's passage from his letter to the Thessalonians that his approach to his role as a teacher is very different from what Jesus objects to. His whole approach is to share the burdens of the people he ministers to.

As is often the case, today's readings go right to the heart of what we have been focusing on in the parish during the past few months. As you have heard in our preaching, at our Generations of Faith gathering sessions, and read in the bulletin, we have been focusing on the very real problem that 3/4 of those who claim to be Catholic do not go to Mass regularly. As I mentioned in my homily last month, one of the best reasons I have heard for this is that the people have suggested for this is that people do not see the connection between what goes on at Mass and what goes on in their everyday lives. I suspect that is true for many who still do come to Mass regularly. Today's tale of two Pharisees gives us a pretty clear picture of how the Mass is connected to what we are doing the rest of the week by its stark contrast of the two Pharisees.

What makes these two pictures of what a Pharisee is so different? They obviously are preaching and teaching the same word of God. The difference is the relationship that Paul has with Jesus. The Pharisee that Jesus so often takes to task in the Gospels is missing the point that the teachings, the law, the prophets, are not the word of God. The Word of God is a person, the second person of the Trinity. The Gospel is not just those four books of the New Testament, or a set of teachings or a story about Jesus. Our Gospel, our good news IS Jesus, the Christ. From the very beginning of our salvation history, God invites humans to enter into a close loving relationship with God. In the very beginning of the story we have that wonderful little vignette of the first humans walking in the cool of the evening with God. Who walks together like that? Intimate friends. Then God gave the people of Israel the law and the prophets as a gift that would help them be the incarnation of God's love on earth, drawing others into that same relationship. When that didn't work, God didn't send another set of laws or teachings. God sent Himself in Jesus. And then Jesus sends us to be the body of Christ, to be the incarnation of God here and now so that people we encounter the other 167 hours of the week can encounter God personally and be drawn into that loving relationship.

The Pharisee in the Gospel reading doesn't get that. That Pharisee has made the law an end in itself instead of seeing it as a help to encountering God. This still happens today. The Gospel passage we heard this morning is often used by fundamentalists to "prove" that Catholics are not really Christians because we call our priests Father. In taking these words literally, they miss what Jesus is trying to tell them: all the teachers, the pastors, the priests are given to us to point people towards God, not themselves. Do the fundamentalists think Jesus is telling them to stop calling their fathers Father? Or their teachers, Teacher? Jesus uses hyperboles throughout the Gospels. When we focus on encountering the person of Christ, the words become much more meaningful, and helpful. They stop being a burden and become a means to lift us up.

So the connection between what we do at Mass and the rest of our lives is that we come here to be formed more fully into the Body of Christ so that we can better be that Body out there. Paul gets that. He says it so simply in that letter to the Thessalonians, "we were determined to share with you our very selves." That is what God does through Jesus. That is the whole point of the church and those called by baptism to be the body of Christ. We are to be the instrument through which God shares God's self with us. But we cannot share our selves in a way that shares God unless we truly become the body of Christ. We will never do that perfectly in this life, but we can do it better and better. That is why we come to Mass week after week after week. To hear the story of who we truly are, and to share in the gift of Christ's own self in the Eucharist. We bring our cares and our sins and our disappointments and we lay them at the altar, and hopefully we leave them there. In return we take in the Word of God (who is a person at work in us) and the body and blood of Christ so we can go out to share our very selves as the body of Christ. Without that sharing of self as a sharing of God, the law and the prophets and the Church and the scriptures make no sense. And neither does Mass.

In closing I would like to share the words of another deacon, Tony Pignataro from Toronto. In a homily on these readings, he answers the hypothetical question: who would I want to visit me if I were ill? When I read his words, for me they were not just the words of someone who is ill but they are words that express the deepest longings that each of us has for encountering God in this life. Deacon Tony said he would "want someone to whom it mattered if I lived or died, recovered or relapsed, hoped or collapsed in dispair. Someone who would weep along with me if I fell, or rejoice with me if I were lifted up. Someone who would stand on the other side of pain and death and who would speak words of resurrection to me. Someone who knew of the battles ahead, who had wrestled with angels and demons, who had pleaded with God and could offer insights that would help me along the way. Someone in whom I could touch the grace of healing, of reconciliation so as to be brought to acceptance and surrender. Someone in whom I could rest, knowing that my comfort was their joy. Someone who was willing to share their very selves.

That's what we are doing here today. Trying to become that Pharisee, that Body of Christ.

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