(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 3, 2002 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 23: 1-12.)

"Jesus Confronts ‘The Big Excuse.’"

The title of today’s Gospel text could be, "Jesus confronts ‘The Big Excuse!’"

Have you ever heard The Big Excuse? I’ll bet you have. More importantly, have you ever tried to use it yourself?

Well, here are three people who have tried: David, John and Joe.

David is 10-years-old. One day recently his father said to him, "Go and clean your room—immediately!" David responded, "But dad, grandpa told me the other day that you never cleaned your room when you were my age. He said your room always looked—and smelled—like a pig sty!"

Last Wednesday, John was at work and he said to himself, "I can take a few items home with me this afternoon. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, the boss cheats people and steals from them every day. He even cheats on his taxes. So why shouldn’t I take something from him? Besides, he doesn’t pay me nearly enough for what I do around here."

Joe was discussing his religion with a friend recently, and during the course of their conversation, he said, "I don’t obey the Church anymore regarding faith and morals, because some bishops in the world have failed to protect young children. Why should I obey these men, when they’ve failed to practice what they preach?"

Three examples of The Big Excuse!

And what is The Big Excuse? Basically it’s the one that says, "Because you don’t (or because you didn’t), I don’t have to." Because you’ve failed to live up to a certain standard in your life, I don’t have to obey you when you tell me that I must live up to that standard in my life.

My brothers and sisters, please do not attempt to use this excuse on Judgment Day—because it definitely won’t "fly" with Jesus Christ. Do not say, "Lord, I didn’t obey those in authority over me, because they didn’t practice what they preached." He will not be impressed with that excuse—nor will he accept it! We know this because of what he said at the very beginning of this Gospel passage from Matthew 23. Now before I read the verses in question, let’s recall for a moment what Jesus’ relationship was like with the scribes and the Pharisees. Simply put, he loved them, as he loved all people; he desired their salvation, as he desired the salvation of everyone he met on this earth—but, at the same time, he detested their pride and their self-righteousness. Listen to a few of the things he said to them later in this chapter: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of plunder and self-indulgence. . . . Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. . . .On the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing."

So I guess if we had been Jews back in first century Palestine, it would have been okay for us to tune-out these guys and disregard their teachings?

Wrong! That’s why, before he chastised these men in Matthew 23, Jesus said these words to the crowds and to his disciples (words which we heard a few moments ago): "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." Imagine! Jesus told his disciples that they had to obey these hypocrites!—these whitewashed tombs, these proud, arrogant, self-righteous phonies!

Was Jesus condoning the sins of these religious leaders? No way! They would be held accountable for their actions, just like all of us will be held accountable for ours. But Jesus recognized the fact that these men—however evil they might have been—had a God-given authority to teach within the Jewish community of the first century. Consequently, as long as their teachings didn’t contradict the moral law contained in the Old Testament, the people were bound to obey. The Big Excuse was not acceptable. The message of Jesus was, "You must do as they say; just don’t do as they do."

And so, young people, when your parents ask you to avoid certain activities that are sinful and evil, you must obey—even if your parents engaged in these activities when they were your age. The Big Excuse is no excuse for you! And in such instances your parents would probably tell you that they learned the hard way, and they’d rather you learn from their mistakes than from your own.

This Gospel text also reminds us that we must be obedient to the Church in matters of faith and morals, even when certain leaders in the Church are not practicing what they preach—which, sad to say, does happen on occasion. Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees were sitting on the "chair" of Moses. The word for chair in Greek is "kathedra," from which we get the English word cathedral. A cathedral is the place where the bishop has his "chair." The scribes and Pharisees sat on the chair of Moses, meaning that they were empowered to teach with the authority of Moses. The bishop sits on the chair of his cathedral, which is a symbol of his God-given authority to teach in the name of Jesus Christ and the apostles. Thus a bishop (or even a pope) may be a Pharisee in his own personal life, but if he proclaims to us the teaching of the Church on any moral or spiritual matter, we are bound to say "Amen" to his words and obey them.

Thankfully, most leaders in the Church are not Pharisees (despite what the media would have us believe). Most do their best to embody the spirit of St. Paul, who worked tirelessly in the service of God’s people. The words Paul spoke in today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians 2 apply to many clerics in the Church today whom you will never hear about on the evening news— precisely because they’re being faithful; and faithfulness isn’t newsworthy in the modern world.

But it should be comforting to know that Jesus Christ can still guide us even when some bishops and priests don’t live the faith they proclaim. As St. Augustine reminded us in one of his sermons, if we follow their words of truth but not their example of sin, it will actually be Jesus who is leading us and shepherding us through them. And with Jesus, we will never, ever go wrong.