Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

The Humility to Turn to God

This week, we meditate on the theme of burdensome religion and the humility we need to turn to God.

At the funeral of a young man killed by a drunk driver, the priest preaches how the people he sees in the pews are never in church on Sunday.  He takes them to task for not being more committed Catholics.  A young woman calls her parish to get a certificate to be a godparent.  Because she never registered in her parish, the secretary yells at her for wasting her precious time and says to try doing it right next time.  A middle-aged man drops off his son and daughter at their Catholic school, but all the other parents distance themselves from him, and even gossip about him behind his back, because he and his wife divorced recently.

Unfortunately, there are times when religion can be burdensome.  All the obligations, laws, rituals, moral codes, and observances can weigh down one’s relationship with God and with the community.  They are supposed to serve our relationship with God and rightly order us towards love.  If religion is not tempered with the infinite mercy of God it loses its transformative potential.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus excoriates the Pharisees and the scribes because they burdened the people.  “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.”  Later, Jesus says they lock up the kingdom of heaven, so no one can get in, not even themselves (Mt. 23:13).  He calls them hypocrites, actors, who are just playing games of religion.  They preach at the people, but never practice the faith themselves.  Jesus knows that the ego’s best disguise is religion.  It is so easy to feel superior to someone else because one follows religious codes perfectly.  These are the “self-righteous” people who, it turns out, are far from God’s mercy because it never occurs to them that they might need God.

Still, we are quick to tell religious people to practice what they preach while we may not be doing so either.  Ours is a disturbingly cynical age, reveling in the exposure of religious figures.  We love it when the curtains are pulled back and a priest, a minister, or a rabbi gets caught in the act, proving their immorality.  It makes us feel better about ourselves, morally superior.  But, are we?  We love to blame other people for our problems.  This is classically known as scapegoating.

No one is perfect.  So, Jesus tells us not to play games of either hypocritical religion or of scapegoating, but to humble ourselves.  His warning to call no one father but God, and have no master but the Christ, points to how quickly we can suffer from a delusional messianic complex.  We idolize popular religious or prophetic personalities and just assume they will fix everything.  The right does it with Donald Trump just as much as the left does it with both Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  There are even certain Catholics who believe Pope Francis is going to reform everything in the Church to their benefit.   None of these people are God.  Not one is Christ.  The import of this Gospel reading is that we look to no one else but God through Jesus.  If we do so, we can be aware of our sin and weakness, aware that we are prone to needing a superhero to fix everything wrong, and aware that everyone can be a hypocrite whether religious or not. 

In a later verse, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees whitewashed tombs.  They are all pretty on the outside but rotting on the inside.  He is describing a superficial group of people.  Today, people are playing these games in wholly different ways.  Hollywood appears to be consumed by this phenomenon.  But, so is the rest of America.  Richard Rohr says America’s primary sin is superficiality.  We don’t like to go within, to go deep, or to sink below the surface of life.  We are entranced with how people look and the way they present themselves by their actions as well as by their Instagram and Twitter feeds.

Spiritual teachers are aware that enlightened people have a hard time with everyday realities like taxes, raising children, commuting, maintaining a house, and paying the bills.  Enlightenment doesn’t mean these realities disappear or get easier.  Our neuroses don’t go away miraculously.  We need the humility to repent every day, to return to the Divine Source of all enlightenment and the way of Christ.  We need the humility of constantly bringing our hearts and minds back into God’s presence, and to let God be God.  Such humility guards against hypocrisy, against religion becoming another ego disguise, and against the scapegoating plaguing our world.