31st Sunday in Ordinary time

Five hundred years ago a monk called passionately for reforms of the Catholic Church in order to return it to its evangelical roots. All his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ were summarily rejected, and the monk in question was urged by Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to follow suit. He refused and, as a consequence, he was excommunicated – that means his theses were condemned and he was excluded from the Church. Instead of making internal reforms the Church faced the Reformation, and Martin Luther (the monk in question) became a figurehead of a new branch of Christianity. It took the Catholic Church merely 450 years to give heed to Martin Luther’s calls for change. The Second Vatican Council, held in the 1960s, effectively implemented many of his propositions. Had the Church authorities paid heed to them at the time, perhaps Europe would have avoided the horrors of the religious wars and persecution that followed the split.

The Church today has to ‘translate’ its teachings into the language of the modern world, both in a literal and pastoral sense. The statistics show clearly that people in the UK are becoming irreligious at a worrying rate. We can easily blame whatever and whoever we like for that. But I think the Church has to look hard at itself. It seems that the more challenging the social environment becomes, the more withdrawn from it the Church gets. It seems that many figures in power within the Church believe that by going backwards and making the Church more and more exclusive (by excluding more and more groups of people) it can be ‘saved.’ It will not. There’s a lot of effort to extinguish the flame of hope ignited by Pope Francis. That effort could be better used to ‘translate’ the ever-relevant message of the gospel into the language of the people of the 21st century so that they can understand and accept it.

The first paragraph in today’s gospel has always disturbed me: initially, when I was a young man going to church regularly, and even more after I had been ordained. The accusation is made by Jesus against those who enforce strict religious laws, while effectively putting themselves above them: ‘They do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!’ This accusation doesn’t apply exclusively to religious authorities of course. The ongoing scandal of sexual abuse and harassment, news of which is currently filling our TV screens, radio waves, front pages and websites, is an example of how corruptive power can be. The law-makers in Westminster are now themselves under scrutiny with regard to how the law has been breached there for a very long time.

In today’s gospel Jesus presents two opposing models of wielding power and exercising authority. The first one I’d call ‘Old-Testamental’ – or ‘legalistic’, if you prefer. In practical terms, detailed laws regulate practically all aspects of life in fine detail, effectively taking away people’s freedom of choice or limiting it to a few similarly unattractive options. Dictatorships of any colour, whether religious or secular, are the most extreme examples of that. The other model, presented by Jesus in the second paragraph of today’s gospel, is based on equality. That must not, however, be mistaken for uniformity, as we are not identical. Each individual has specific talents and skills, and can play a specific role in their local community as well as in the wider one. This model requires two interconnected attitudes from each person involved. The first attitude is the recognition of one’s own abilities and limits. That’s genuine humility. It leads to the second desirable attitude: working with others who can use one’s abilities and complement one’s limitations. This is the model Jesus clearly prefers and which he urges his followers to implement. Jesus urges you and me to build our community in this way. Let me proclaim this very clearly: I’m one of many parishioners in this community, tasked with the specific roles of administering the sacraments and of preaching the gospel. But without you, I’m nothing. I need each one of you, with your talents and your skills, to complement my own shortcomings that are obvious to everyone here.

Photo by geralt