The last few Sundays, our gospel has been about Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and the elders of the people. They had tried to trap Jesus by posing difficult questions and each time Jesus was able to turn it around into a teaching opportunity. Today’s gospel is the climax of that series of confrontations as recorded by Matthew and Chapter 23 addresses the issue about hypocrisy. In fact, of all the evils or challenges that Jesus faced and confronted, the greatest was probably the evil of hypocrisy. Jesus often used strong language when confronting hypocrites; they are times that they also provoked his greatest anger.
In the gospel today, we hear Jesus telling his disciples and the crowds that had gathered not to call anyone ‘Rabbi’. This word “Rabbi” is a title of respect signifying master, teacher, given by the Jews to their doctors and teachers – especially one who studies or teaches Jewish law. In other words, it is a title reserved for someone who not only has studied or teaches the law but is also considered a fine example of what the laws mean in ordinary life.
This passage has sometimes been misconstrued and even misused to mean that Jesus prohibited his disciples calling anyone ‘Rabbi’ or even addressing another as ‘Father’. This would not be possible because, after the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalen near the tomb when she recognised him, she called him “Rabboni’, which is a longer form of ‘Rabbi’. There are also other verses in the Gospels when Jesus is called Rabbi by his disciples. It is apparent that Jesus did not prohibit the use if the word “Rabbi” or “Father”.
What led Jesus to say this was because of what he saw – these people who went around taking joy and priding themselves in being called ‘Rabbi’ and wanted to be honoured in the community, not practise the law. They prided themselves in knowing the law, imposed it on others but did not practise it themselves. For Jesus, knowing the law was complete when one lived the law. In fact, a teacher’s best visual aid for imparting knowledge is nothing else but his/her own life. Personal witness is the most effective form of communication because a learner absorbs a lesson when there is a concrete model that shows how the lesson is to be lived.
One can say that the gospel today is about personal responsibility – being responsible for having been called to be followers of Jesus. Most of us may not have tiles like how the doctors and teachers of Jewish law during Jesus’ time. But there is one “title” that cannot be removed from us and that is being called God’s children. In the epistle of John we read, “think of the love the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are” (1Jn 3:1). God has made us his children and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
As God’s children, we recognise that we are far from being perfect and that we need the grace of God to remain steadfast and faithful. In doing so, we must also strive to be good examples to others. The world today is in need of good examples and Jesus must inspire us to be good examples to others. I recall vividly one among the many famous quotes by Mahatma Gandhi, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” What the world needs is more people to practise love than to preach about love. Let us pray, despite our own failing and shortcoming, we may never stop trying to be an example of Christ to others because you may be the only Jesus some people see.
– 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time