There are many polls, surveys, and discussions about why fewer people participate in formal faith traditions, while at the same time many people are still hungry for God. Some people still profess to be spiritual but identify less with organized religion. There are a handful of causes why, but Jesus may be shedding light on two possible ones. Jesus discusses in today’s Gospel from Matthew: “For they preach but they do not practice. 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” (Mt 23:3-4).
We have an innate sense that alerts us to hypocrisy and when many seek something deeper in their life and they get slapped in the face with leaders and practitioners in faith traditions preaching one way in public while living another, it is damaging. The Catholic Church is still reeling from not only those clergy who have abused children, but those bishops who have covered up the abuse. This certainly is the height of hypocrisy in that those entrusted to shepherd the people of God are preying on their own flock.
As horrific as these acts are, there are so many other ways we are not practicing what we preach. It is easy to give up and walk away and say this is not my problem, to point fingers and justify our own acts of hypocrisy by saying well at least I am not that bad. Yet even this evil within the Church does not change the truth that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the source of our being and fulfillment.
We are followers of Jesus, and that means the standard we strive for is how he lived his life. Jesus always pointed the way to the Father. We as human beings are finite, are going to make mistakes and sin. While Jesus is our model, even more, he is the source for our living faithfully to his teachings. Through his love working through us and directed out toward others, we are capable of standing up for the dignity of those entrusted to us within our realm of influence.
If we want to guide someone in the ways of our faith tradition it is not enough to say this is what you need to do and live accordingly. We need to practice and live what we are guiding others to do, be willing to accompany, assist, and walk with someone along the way. As a Christian, just giving someone the Bible and say there you go, that’s all you need, and quote a couple of scripture passages is not enough. If we are sharing a principle to put into practice and we are not willing to lift a finger to help them, or worse do the opposite, we do more damage than if we said nothing.
Jesus calls us to resist judging and condemning, to love our enemies, to be forgiving, and merciful. Powerful actions to live up to, heavy burdens to lift indeed. To say that the bar Jesus sets is high is an understatement, but he lived them out. We not only learn how to act from reading about the life and teachings of Jesus but even more importantly, he still gives us the power and assists us to live them out too.
Jesus challenges us even more than the scribes and Pharisees, but he is willing to help us carry the load. We need to be willing to see where we fall short of the goals he sets for us, ask for forgiveness, and his help going forward. From our own experiences of falling down and getting back up, we are better able to help others to be disciples, by guiding, modeling, and walking with them. The most important guidance we can give anyone is to lead people in such a way that they have an encounter and experience of Jesus for themselves, so even when we fall, they will still have Jesus as their ultimate guide and they can then help us up and we can continue to journey together, side by side.
Photo: Painting, Christ Blessing by Italian artist Antonello da Messina, 1465