It was late in the evening when I finished hospital visits this past Tuesday. As it was Halloween night, I decided to watch a scary movie. I chose a movie called “The Witch.”
The movie was set in New England in the 1630’s. It was about a family of Puritans who considered themselves to be more righteous and virtuous than their Puritan neighbors. They left their town in order to live a utopian lifestyle unhindered.
Their lives took a turn for the worse when they moved into the wilderness; sadly, all their troubles were of their own making. Their extreme piety and utopian ideals backfired, and caused them to turn on each other. In the end, they all perished in one gruesome way or another.
It wasn’t a typical scary movie, but it was quite frightening, in its own way. The movie was a morality tale about the dangers of fanaticism and self-righteousness. It illustrated how the best of intentions can lead to the worst outcomes. This was true for the family in the morality tale. It was also true for the scribes and Pharisees about whom Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel reading.
The scribes and Pharisees had organized the various laws and prescriptions in the Hebrew Scriptures with intention of helping people to learn and obey them. Unfortunately, their good intentions got the better of them. Some of those religious leaders in Jerusalem substituted following the rules for following God’s will, and it led to their downfall.
While it’s always a good idea to follow the rules, a real problem arises when one focuses on one’s own accomplishments in the life of faith. Focusing on one’s own spiritual accomplishments leads to replacing God’s will with one’s own will.
When Jesus told the crowds to follow the teaching of the Pharisees but not their example, he was warning them against the self-righteousness that results from thinking that one’s own actions can gain God’s mercy.
Every one of us faces the same potential confusion that led these scribes and Pharisees to admire their own personal virtues. Everyone has to learn to distinguish between what seems good and what is actually good in God’s eyes.
How can we know if, like the scribes and Pharisees, we preach a truth that we do not practice? The scribes and Pharisees said things like this to their contemporaries: you should fast more often in order to atone for your sins; you should respect me because of my piety; you should follow my example in order to be admired by God and your peers.
Jesus said, on the other hand, said, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) What he meant was that one’s personal virtue is not to be held up as an example to imitate. Instead, one should imitate God’s compassion towards all. Jesus knew that focusing on others first prevents the duplicity that degrades religious practice into a self-serving activity.
It is sometimes tempting to say to someone who is struggling with their life, “You should get yourself together,” or “You should be more responsible,” or “You should change, and become like me.” While this is usually done with the best of intentions, it is never done with any degree of humility; because of this, it can lead to our downfall.
Rather than assuming other people need our preaching, we should assume that we need to put ourselves at the service of one another. If the family in the movie had stayed in their town, and put themselves at the service of their neighbors, they wouldn’t have ended their lives by violence. That, of course, wouldn’t have provided such a chilling tale.
There is only one practice worth preaching, and only one preaching worth practicing; it is Jesus’ humble service toward sinners and outcasts. If you want truly to practice what Jesus preached, then your good intentions must be expressed in actions that actually address the needs of those who struggle with their lives.
Jesus said, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) Jesus never preached anything that he did not first put into practice in his own life. Every one of us must learn to discern between what seems good and what is actually good. In God’s eyes, greatness is humble service.