Note: Fr. Ed’s homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time is now available online! Click here to listen.
“They sit in the seat of Moses, so do what they say…”
It is a common approach to disregard what people say if their actions are not consistent with the values they articulate. In the common parlance, “they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.” The consequence of this is that folks feel like they can excuse themselves from following their “talk” because their “walk” does not bear it out. This is just the reverse of what the Lord Jesus says in this Scripture (Mt. 23:1-12).
A tale of two chairs
First, what is the seat of Moses? In the Jewish tradition, expressed in the Mishnah (Pirke Aboth, 1:1), there is a teaching that the Holy One of Israel gave the Torah to Moses during the great Sinai event on that first Pentecost. But what happened after Moses? The Jews hold that there was a line of succession after Moses: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” This line of succession was referred to as the chair of Moses. It implied that those who currently sat in the chair spoke with authority given by God for the governing of His People.
The words of the Lord Jesus above demonstrate a confirmation of this perspective: precisely because they sit in Moses’s seat, they are to be obeyed. But do what they say, not what they do. The Lord Jesus then enumerates a list of offenses that some of the contemporary leaders commit and warns His followers not to imitate their example. However, nothing in what He says creates the impression that this dichotomy between their teachings and their actions provides grounds to disregard their teaching. This is an important principle to be aware of because it so goes against the grain of our usual approach, e.g. they’re hypocrites, I don’t have to obey!
How we approach this issue is not just a theoretical exercise concerning early Judaism. The Church teaches that on Pentecost when the Church herself was born in the fire of the Holy Spirit, a new chair was constituted. From that point on, this new chair provides the focus for teaching and authority in the Church: the chair of Peter. Like Moses’s successors, Peter’s successors are seen to be sitting in his chair and sharing in his authority, from Linus to Francis.
Here a distinction must be made. Hypocrisy is when our actions and our words don’t correspond to each other intentionally, e.g. I say one thing and do another and know that I am doing that and I am intentionally doing that. This is very different from having our actions not in accord with our speech because we are still “temples under construction,” e.g. I invite people to live a life of holiness, even though my life has several significant failures in that regard. This is not hypocrisy because it is not something I wish to be the case and my great desire is to grow in holiness so that my words, my actions, and the witness of my life are all in accord with each other. As long as we are still “temples under construction” there may well be a gap, but that’s ok, as long as we have the humility and wisdom to acknowledge that and we are continuing to plead with the Lord Jesus to continue to make our hearts more like His.
The alternative is that we would never preach the Gospel or share with anyone about the Kingdom unless and until our lives were in perfect accord with the Gospel. In that case, there would be precious little evangelization taking place, to put it mildly. But, the King of Kings does not say to us that we should wait until we are perfect before we preach. He simply tells us to preach.
As we plead with Him to continue the work in our hearts of conversion, He will respond and we will continue to grow more and more into the men and women of God He has called us to be. He is faithful, and He will do it! —Fr. Ed