Summary: The Pharisees refused to repent because they thought they were doing everything correctly; if we follow them, we will ignore the most important part of being Jesus' disciples.
Thursday of Third Week in Advent 2016
Joy of the Gospel
Listen once more to these words of today's Gospel: “When they heard this all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” St. Luke does not often insert editorial comments like this into his writings. So this must be important. Remember that John’s baptism was focused on repenting of personal sin. The sinners and tax collectors accepted John’s baptism in an act of humility and public penance. But the Pharisees and scribes did not, because they spent their lives focused on keeping the minutiae of the Law. As a result they missed the big picture, they majored in minors. They avoided obeying the commandment to love, to self-giving, that Jesus witnessed to by every moment of His life on earth. Particularly did they avoid helping the poor, hearing and answering their cry.
The Pope has been speaking of our care for the poor: ‘We incarnate the duty of hearing the cry of the poor when we are deeply moved by the suffering of others. Let us listen to what God’s word teaches us about mercy, and allow that word to resound in the life of the Church. The Gospel tells us: “Blessed are the merciful, because they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). The apostle James teaches that our mercy to others will vindicate us on the day of God’s judgment: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy, yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:12-13). Here James is faithful to the finest tradition of post-exilic Jewish spirituality, which attributed a particular salutary value to mercy: “Break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquillity” (Dan 4:27). The wisdom literature sees almsgiving as a concrete exercise of mercy towards those in need: “Almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin” (Tob 12:9). . . .The same synthesis appears in the New Testament: “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). This truth greatly influenced the thinking of the Fathers of the Church and helped create a prophetic, counter-cultural resistance to the self-centered hedonism of paganism. We can recall a single example [from St. Augustine]: “If we were in peril from fire, we would certainly run to water in order to extinguish the fire… in the same way, if a spark of sin flares up from our straw, and we are troubled on that account, whenever we have an opportunity to perform a work of mercy, we should rejoice, as if a fountain opened before so that the fire might be extinguished”.
‘This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it. The Church’s reflection on these texts ought not to obscure or weaken their force, but urge us to accept their exhortations with courage and zeal. Why complicate something so simple? Conceptual tools exist to heighten contact with the realities they seek to explain, not to distance us from them. This is especially the case with those biblical exhortations which summon us so forcefully to brotherly love, to humble and generous service, to justice and mercy towards the poor. Jesus taught us this way of looking at others by his words and his actions. So why cloud something so clear? We should not be concerned simply about falling into doctrinal error, but about remaining faithful to this light-filled path of life and wisdom. For “defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence, or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them”.’
If we spend all our time poring over publications and speeches and looking for heresy, we run the risk of turning into the same kind of Pharisees that Luke was condemning in his gospel. Yes, we should be concerned with communicating religious truth faithfully and accurately. But we ought to give our major attention to witnessing to the Gospel by our lives of service and care. Balance in everything.