Sunday 31 A

We have all heard the expression, ‘practice what you preach.’

Many years ago a Greek philosopher named Aristotle identified three elements that must be present in every public speaker for him or her to be persuasive. These are, firstly, ‘logos’ ,or the spoken word, which must have coherence; secondly, ‘pathos’, or feeling, connecting with the audience’s sympathies; and lastly, ‘ethos’ whereby the speaker must be a credible witness to his own words, literally in his ethical behaviour.

It is very clear that the Lord has strong words of condemnation for the guilty practices of rabbis who lack this ‘ethos’ for their grave failings in administration, and in bad example. Whilst the ‘logos’ or the teaching of the rabbis is valid and authoritative, the example of their way of life is simply awful and can render their teaching lacking in relevance or urgency or unpersuasive to their hearers when they fail to live up to what they preach.

Pride, pomposity, arrogance have no place among God’s appointed and God’s anointed. The condemnation in the First Reading states:

‘But you, you have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your teaching’

The word that sums up this stumbling is ‘scandal’ coming from a Greek word ‘skandalon’ meaning a stumbling block. It is the Church’s teaching that ‘active scandal’ is defined as deliberately wishing to lead others – by deed or omission - astray. It is to set up something in someone’s path to deliberately cause them to fall over. It is sinister and involves deep personal malice and deceit in the perpetrator. [See the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs CCC ##2284-2287].

It is a sin against the fifth commandment ‘thou shall not kill’ surprisingly enough, but because it has the effect of killing the soul or spirit within a person, and indeed a whole community, that it is so insidiously harmful.

People do often sin through ignorance, force, fear, passion or acquired habit, but to deliberately wish to sin and/or to wish to lead others who are innocent through false teaching or behaviour to sin is indeed the worst kind of all and is engaging in a true ‘scandal’.

All moral and spiritual authority comes from God. Once the Creator is lost sight of, the creature is soon forgotten. Once a priest, rabbi or other religious leader loses sight of their responsibilities to practice integrity of life, with deep humility, they are in danger of setting themselves up as the arbiter of authority and lose the run of themselves in conduct, conversation and manner of dress. Having lost faith in God and becoming self-centred and vain they cause others to lose faith though lack of leadership and guidance. Priests are made contemptible and vile (First Reading) in the eyes of others through the sins of other wayward priests whose priorities are their own prestige and comfort.

This gives us pause when we consider the real scandals of recent years in the Church, the underlying clericalism that led to a magnification of evil, the effects on victims, and the outrage and disappointment of many disaffected Catholics to those ‘who have showed partiality in administration’ (First Reading).

St Paul is the opposite of everything we have described. He is a tireless worker for his people, slaving for them so that they can get to know the difference Christ can make to their lives, using the image of maternal care, with the effect on the communities to whom he is sent that ‘God's message [is] not some human thinking; and ... a living power among you who believe it.’ He humbles himself, and he is not haughty or proud (like the prayer of the Psalmist).

To sum up, in other words, the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, and the unfaithful priests in the time of the prophet Malachi ‘have strayed from the way’ and are now deliberately IN THE WAY. St Paul, in contrast, is helping the early Church known as the Way, to help people on their way to salvation, to ‘life in Christ’.

May we like St Paul, do likewise.

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