“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” – Mother Teresa
(Gospel text: MT 23:1-12)
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The “scribes and the Pharisees” are the group in the gospels that everybody loves to hate. By that I mean that we identify them as a group of people who often seem to be at odds with Jesus—and we seem to know why. The word most often associated with them is “hypocrite.” That is, we listen to a gospel passage such as today’s in which the scribes and Pharisees are depicted as being “fond of places of honor at banquets and the front seats in synagogues.” We hear them described as those who “bind up heavy loads . . . while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them.”
“Hypocrites!” we say. Saying one thing while doing another.
In our zeal to identify this group’s disease, we often miss the point of this gospel passage. Jesus actually approves of their teachings. The indictment, which Jesus makes is this: “Their words are bold but their deeds are few.” I believe their affliction is not so much hypocrisy as superficiality. They have a lot of the right words; it’s just that the words never penetrate deeply enough to affect their actions.
Recently, I heard the “religious landscape” of the United States described as “about 3,000 miles wide and about 3 inches deep.” We have every imaginable variety of religious experience from coast to coast. We don’t lack variety, but depth. We are easily distracted and on to the next new idea that attracts us, even jumping from one religious expression to another. This “disease” tends to afflict far too many.
Lent is an opportunity to let the Lord take us into deep water. To let the Word penetrate deeply into our hearts so that it truly changes them. To let the Word, not just inform, but transform us, so that our actions are affected.
This kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and it can be challenging. It requires prayer (i.e. Rosary & Eucharist Adoration), the Sacraments (frequent confession and frequent reception of the Eucharist), and mediation on the Scripture.
But know this: our tiniest efforts bring a smile to God’s face. When we offer him even our desire to do better, he multiplies this little gift and fills it with the transforming power of his love. Just as a parent teaches a baby to talk by praising and repeating his first sounds, Jesus, our patient teacher, is eager to work with us as we grow in his love.