25 August. Saturday of Week Twenty
Ezek 43:1ff. The prophet sees the glory of the Lord return to dwell in the Jerusalem temple which it had earlier abandoned.
Matthew 23:1ff. Through humility we are absorbed into God who exalts us in his loving power.
Providence and Prudence
In Jesus’ time, the Scribes and Pharisees used tradition and great ingenuity in order to determine God’s will for His people – but often got it wrong. While Jesus admits their right in principle to exercise religious leadership, he sharply criticises the way that they fulfilled their role. “The Scribes and the Pharisees are Moses’ successors as teachers; therefore, observe everything they tell you. But do not follow their example.” In effect, their words are bold but their deeds are puny. Pride and selfishness, greed for honour and power, have undermined their religious authority. Jesus condemns their splendid robes and haughty practices: the widening of their phylacteries, their little boxes containing parchments of scripture, worn on their forehead and left wrist at prayer; places of honour at banquets and the front seats in synagogues; delighting in honorific titles like rabbi, teacher and father. (What would he say of “Your holiness”, “Your eminence”, “your grace”, “Reverend and Right Reverend”? we wonder, uneasily.)
Jesus did not brand these practices as evil of themselves. The Scriptures told the devout Israelite to wear the phylactery. After urging us to love God with all our heart, soul and strength (Deut 6:4-5), the Torah continues: “Take to heart these words. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad; bind them at your wrist; wear them on your forehead” (Deut 6:6-8). It is not the acts themselves but the spirit with which they are performed that Jesus cares about. He may seem, literally, to forbid the use of such honorific titles, but remember how often he spoke with Semitic hyperbole (cf., Luke 14:26). In his follow-up, he at once refers to the inner spirit that directs and motivates external actions: “The greatest among you must be the one who serves. Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, but those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”
This same insistence on the inner spirit imbues today’s text from Ezekiel. Once he has completed his prophetic task and the Spirit-led people have returned to their ancestral land, the temple can be rebuilt. Yet external reconstruction is not enough. The glory of the Lord must return and dwell again in the midst of the people. From the beginning then, God had a mysterious plan that would develop far beyond the dreams of his servants.
First Reading: Ezekiel 43:1-7
Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east.And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory. The vision I saw was like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision that I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face.
As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.While the man was standing beside me, I heard someone speaking to me out of the temple.He said to me: Mortal, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet, where I will reside among the people of Israel forever. The house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their whoring, and by the corpses of their kings at their death.
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.