32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nov 12, 2018
Like myself today the Jewish priests and scribes of Jesus’ day wore distinct liturgical vestments when they were leading worship in the Temple. These vestments were long and flowing and were meant to be worn in the Temple during times of prayer. They were not meant to be normal street cloths because their lose fit made them impractical for wearing while doing manual labor. Jesus in today’s gospel isn’t condemning scribes who wore flowing garments in a liturgical setting but those who wore them in the street as an excuse to get out of the manual work done by the average person.
According to the Talmud, the extensive collection of commentary on the Mosaic Law compiled several hundred years after the life of Jesus, when two men met in the marketplace deference was to be given to the man who had the greater knowledge of the law. Since a scribe was a student of the Law, the Talmud says he should be deferred to and people less knowledgeable in the Law should greet him first. It seems to have been the same practice in Jesus’ day. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If it is meant to shows respect for the Mosaic Law and for a person who has dedicated a great deal of time to its study it is good. It becomes a problem when it is demanded by a religious scholar or taken as a sign of personal glory rather than respect for the Law of God.
In Jesus day the most sought-after seats in a synagogue were those benches that lined the front wall of the room. These seats looked out at the other worshippers in the building. They were considered prime not so much because they were prominent and allowed their occupants to be seen by the whole congregation but because the occupants of these benches could rest their backs against the front wall of the room. This was the same wall that the Ark that held the scrolls of the Torah rested against. It was felt that being able to rest against that same wall brought you closer to God’s word. Sort of like the game of electricity we played as youths.
Again, the desire to be close to God’s word is not bad. What Jesus condemned was the desire for those seats or the prominent seats to the right or left of the host at a banquet. As he told his apostles, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It is always better to be invited to a place of honor rather than claim it and then be humbled by being asked to give up that spot.
Scribes in Jesus’ day were not allowed to take a salary for their work. They were expected to follow some other occupation to support themselves and their families. But it was also considered a great honor for a person of means to be the patron of a scribe. Offering a scribe financial support to free them for the fulltime study of the Law was not a bad thing. In fact, the gospels tell us that Jesus and his apostles were supported by various women of means as he followed his public ministry. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are also financial supporters of Jesus and his band of disciples. Jesus even encourages his disciples when he sends them out on mission to accept hospitality from those to whom they share his teachings. He reminds them that a workman is worth his wage. They should not be reluctant to accept support from those who appreciate their service.
Today Jesus condemns those who would expect such support from patrons. He was especially critical of those scribes who would extract large fees for their prayers or legal decisions. He is especially critical of those scribes who would render a legal decision on behalf of a rich person who was their patron. Sort of like rich donors to a political candidate expecting them to sponsor laws that favor their interests.
We shouldn’t be too critical of the scribes or Jewish religious practices of Jesus’ day. As Catholics we struggle with similar concerns today. We call our struggle clericalism. Clericalism is the belief that the fullness of spiritual attainment is seen as largely reserved for ordained or vowed religious leaders. It is the believe that only priests and other religious leaders have the fulness of faith. It is the belief that they are in some way raised to a higher level of holiness and spiritual understanding. Clericalism encourages the belief that bishops, priests, and other vowed religious have a deeper understanding of faith that makes them superior to the laity. It gives the impression that lay people are second best and are relegated to the status of only being helpers to those with real authority.
Clericalism fosters the view that clerics hold a beatified position as minister just because of their formal role. It defers to them an exalted role that is almost magical because of their position and views them as naturally holier than the laity. Clericalism perpetuates the belief that bishops, priests and religious are capable of a greater moral perfection, insight, wisdom and fortitude. It leads to a top down and authoritarian style of leadership that degrades the talents and gifts of the vast majority of the faithful. It gives the impression that the role of the average Catholic is to pray, pay and obey.
Clericalism comes about because of a misdirected understanding of the meaning of clerical office. It runs completely opposite to Jesus frequent instruction to his apostles to be the servants of others. It is counter to Jesus admonition for the apostles to take on the attitude of being childlike in their willingness to follow the instruction of God through the Holy Spirit.
Neutralizing clericalism needs to be of special concern to Catholics today because it has been a serious contributing factor to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Church. It leads to the insular views that contributed to the scandal by causing many bishops and priest to believe they were above the law. It contributed to the attitude that caused many in authority to view suspiciously reports of abuse, belittle abuse victims and be more concerned about the effects of scandal on reputations and finances than on the need for justice.
Pope Francis has attributed much of the root causes of the clergy sexual abuse scandal to clericalism. In Francis’ August letter to the People of God concerning the scandal he said, “To say no to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.” He calls on everyone in the church and not just clerics to recognize the need to eradicate clericalism in our Catholic Church. Francis claims that clericalism subverts the Christian call for priests especially to be the servants of the laity and not the other way around.
When Francis first became pope, we spoke of the need for the clergy to smell like their sheep. He was emphatic that they be people who are willing to get down to the nitty gritty of the world of the laity. He instructed the clergy to be willing to rub up against, become aware of the needs and concerns of the laity, protect them from danger and lead them to lush grazing. He likened the Church to a field hospital set up to serve the wounded and distressed.
In his August letter Francis also pointed out the responsibility of the laity to minimize the effect of clericalism. For clericalism to be overcome in our Church the laity must help breakdown attitudes that prevent priests from open, equal, and vulnerable human relationships with the laity.
In an August 23, 2018, article in America Magazine called, Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Clericalism, Professor Jason Blakely suggests that everyone in the Church needs to assume a “distributive responsibility” for the elimination of clericalism in the church. Overcoming clericalism is the responsibility of everyone in the Church lay and cleric. Blakely suggests the laity must help overcome clericalism by not isolating bishops and priests by an unrealistic moral and spiritual status. He says that will help lay observers to more clearly see warning signs and more quickly intervene when abuse is suspected.
The laity can often perpetuate clericalism by placing unrealistic expectations on priests. When the priest is unable to fulfill them, they use it as an excuse to malign the priest or the Church in general. Recently, a parishioner acted in this way. They accused me of scolding their teenaged daughter and embarrassing her. Apparently, at the time I felt there was a need to instruct her. Maybe I wasn’t my best self at that particular moment and given a second chance would offer guidance in some other way. Now the family is using my not living up to their expectation of patience and sympathy as an excuse for being estranged from the Church. That is clericalism too.
Blakely wrote that overcoming clericalism is more than “simple, formal gestures of social inclusion.” It is more than just inviting Father to come belting back a beer and a burger at a backyard cookout. Those kinds of superficial relationships don’t necessarily overcome a clericalized and quasi-authoritarian mindset. Blakely says overcoming clericalism “comes about by everyone creating open, transparent and equal relationships that claim their lay authority.
Working to eliminate clericalism must not lead to anti-clericalism though. Suppressing clericalism can’t be used as the excuse for the total scorn of the legitimate authority of bishops and priests to teach faithfully the gospel message. It can’t cause members of the laity to ignore sincere instruction by the clergy on the pressing topics of our day. Overcoming clericalism can’t mean the refusal to listen to or to label as “too political” the earnest instruction offered by the clergy.
This coming week the bishops of our country will be holding their fall meeting. They have on their agenda the need to address the problem of clericalism as it has effected their response to the sexual abuse scandal. They will be deciding on a course of action to hold bishops to greater accountability. Their deliberations need our prayers. I ask you to pray this week that they will be fully open to the direction of the Holy Spirit to implement measure that will reduce the effect of clericalism on our Church.
As we come forward to partake of the Eucharist, the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior Jesus Christ today. Open your own heart to God grace so that you can play your role as a faithful member of the baptized to help overcome clericalism and every form of division in the Church, the Body of Christ.