As Jesus’ passion and death draw near, his teaching becomes more intense. According to the chronology of St. Matthew, the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a prelude to the dramatic cleaning of the Temple. There follows a series of parables that emphasize the theme of judgment and repentance. In the Gospel of today’s Mass (Matthew 23:13-22), Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy.
As we have seen, Jesus gives great importance to the virtue of sincerity. To be sincere is to live in the truth, and the source of all truth is God. To be sincere involves living as God would have us do, so that our desires, words, and actions are authentic and all spring from the same source.
The hypocrisy of some of the scribes and Pharisees stands in stark contrast to this ideal. Jesus doesn’t criticize these religious leaders simply for being sinners; no one can escape that condition. Nor does he rebuke them for being unrepentant; he must still have hope for them in that regard. They are criticized, however, for manipulating the precepts of their religion, and for failing to share the riches of their faith with others.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter” (Matthew 23:13).
This is the first in a series of seven “woes” in the Gospel of St. Matthew. In a way, they are the “reverse side of the coin” to the eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Whereas the Beatitudes proclaim the pattern of blessedness for the Christian, these “woes” reveal the barrenness that is the rotten fruit produced by the rejection of Christ and his Gospel.
Blessedness versus barrenness. This is the contrast presented by Christ. If we want to find blessing, grace and peace in our lives, we will strive, with God’s help, to live the virtues described in the beatitudes. On the other hand, the interior blindness that fuels the “woes” will only lead to corruption, cynicism, and unhappiness.
Particularly offensive to the Lord is the twisting of religious practice into something that resembles superstition.
“You say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’ You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matthew 23:18-19).
Where did the Pharisees get all of this? Their approach to religious duties seems to be little more than a series of well-choreographed rituals, far removed from the intentions of the heart. It is almost as if religion has been reduced to a game of chance. “To attribute the efficacy of prayers. to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2111).
We recognize, of course, that Jesus directs this warning not only to the Pharisees, but to us as well. We never want to regard the outward practice of the faith as a kind of “good luck charm” with the power to manipulate circumstances to our benefit. Rather, the visible forms of the faith serve to cultivate and reinforce an interior disposition of belief, conversion, and worship.
Indeed, in the sacramental life of the Church, outward ritual is transformed by the power of Christ into a living and dynamic communion with God. The sacraments possess a power all their own, because it is Christ himself who is at work. When our faith is firmly rooted in the sacraments, it will not only be preserved, but it will grow in vigor and intensity.
Today, in the life of the Church, is the Memorial of St. Augustine.
A Saint, a sinner, a poet, a philosopher, an author, a father, a bishop, a doctor of the Church, a father of the Church – there are so many ways to look at the saint for today. Yet above all, he is Christ’s. He is a disciple, or perhaps he, like St John the beloved, would describe himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved.
For a sinner the greatest thing about the Lord Jesus is that He identified Himself and revealed Himself to the lost. For St Augustine of Hippo, this was the greatest thing about Jesus Christ, which came through almost on every page of his writings. He never got over the fact that God called him out of darkness into his marvelous light. However great and noble, lofty and poetic his writings may be – he never stopped rejoicing in the very simple truth that he is loved by God.
“You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
The world today needs people who are in love with God, or rather witnesses who reveal themselves as disciples whom Jesus loves. The only thing that can break through the complexity and the confusion of the people of our time is the simple and holy Love of God.
Ever try teaching chastity to a teen, correcting a person who is hurting many, or consoling a person who is suffering in the wake of immeasurable loss? Without the love of God, these things are impossible or perhaps even futile. It is only the Spirit of the living God, that lives and sings in the hearts of disciples that can ignite this fire in others.
This is the fire of St Augustine, his song, his instruction, his beautiful Latin poetic praise of God, his mystagogy and catechesis, his heart and soul – the Love of God. This is why he has such appeal to disciples of every age and every land. He is a man of sincerity. A man who’s love is sincere. There is no faking true love. He is a man on fire with God’s mercy.
There is great need for apostles of our age to be on fire with this love, to first burn brightly with it and then share it like fire that catches others.
May the prayers of St Augustine help us to be on fire with the Love of God and to share it with all.