Oct. 30: Our moral life ought never depend on the moral life of others
Over the past decade we have all been disappointed and hurt by the moral failures and bad judgments of some of our religious leaders. It seems that just as we begin to settle down and move on we get hit with another new report of another example only, serving to invoke those painful memories yet again.
This is not unique to our time. When we consider the 2,000-year history of the Church, there are many persons who are embarrassing examples of moral failure. Of course, this is not just true of our Church. When we read the Old Testament, we note as well the moral failures of the priests and kings of the chosen people of God throughout their history as well.
The prophet Malachi condemns the failure of the priests and Levites to observe the very laws that they imposed on the people. We know from the dialogues between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees that he had similar concerns during their time. Perhaps nowhere in the Bible do we hear such a harsh admonition than we do in this Gospel passage. However, as we might expect, Jesus adds a different twist to the situation in question.
In this passage, the focus of Jesus is not in addressing the priests, Levites or other religious leaders who might be guilty of crimes. Instead, Jesus speaks to the crowds, to those who are directly affected by the sins and crimes of their religious officials. Yet Jesus, in this scene, is not uttering a condemnation against them. His concern for their failures is addressed to them at earlier times in his ministry. This sermon, delivered in the Temple precincts just days before he is crucified, is meant as a challenge to the crowd.
Too often we can allow the moral failures of others, and especially of the clergy and religious, to be excusing causes for failures in ourselves. Some of this comes from our tendency to want to judge any class of people by the conditions shown by the worst among them, even as that subgroup seldom represents the group as a whole. It is also true that we seek ways of rationalizing our own moral failure.
Jesus warns us about over identifying an individual person with the office itself. The moral or personal failure of a priest, bishop, pope, or religious brother or sister does not signify the failure of the priesthood, episcopacy, papacy or religious life. The failure of any individual preacher to follow what he preaches does not negate the power or truth of his teaching.
Unfortunately, we often see a different scenario play itself out, one that Jesus equally warns us against here. Two current and very public scandals involving popular media priests come to mind. In these cases we see men who seem to have allowed their lives and messages to get bigger than the Gospel with many people choosing to place their faith in them instead of in the Church. These people are quick to dismiss the concerns and warnings of bishops and religious superiors in favor of the person they want to follow.
This tendency is very dangerous, not solely because there are some very legitimate concerns about some aspects of the lives and ministries of these men, but because it idolizes the person over the Gospel. Hence, Jesus warns us “do not be called Rabbi … call no one on earth your father … do not be called Master.”
Jesus is not rejecting the authority of office, for he clearly affirmed that as he respected the throne of Moses and the teaching authority of those who occupy it. What he does do, however, is to offer a warning against setting ourselves as authority or allowing someone to do so over us.
We must remain faithful to the call of the Gospel and the authority of the Church to teach us, even if it seems that no one – including those who are in those positions of authority – is doing so. We are never excused from following the Gospel.
Dr. Garry Koch is a seminarian for the Diocese of Trenton.