|Click HERE to read today's scriptures|
The website Catholic Answers does an excellent job of giving one apologetic interpretation of the passage and defense of Catholic tradition on this point. (Click HERE to read).
What I want to pull out from this section of Matthew is the juxtaposition of the line "you are all brothers [and sisters]" (Matt 23:8b) with the line "All their works are performed to be seen" (Matt 23:5). This contrast helps the reader realize that Matthew 23: 1-12 is not about titles in and of themselves, but about the danger of clericalism and hypocrisy in professional religious life. The use of special clothing and titles for clergy--whether the Roman collar or habits and veils, along with titles like "Father" or "Mother", "Sister" or "Brother" (not to mention "Your Holiness", "Your Excellency", and "Your Grace"); or the nice suit and tie and titles like "Pastor", "Elder", "Brother" (as used by Protestants)--create the potential that the common brotherhood and sisterhood of Christians is destroyed by a system of deciding who is more important--who is to be shown greater honor. In contrast, Jesus says, "The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:11-12). This is the key to reading all of the other verses of this section. Jesus is saying that true leadership in the Christian way is always rooted in humble service. If we think he is only talking about titles, then we allow ourselves to miss the many ways, besides titles, that we have of puffing ourselves up and lording our faith over others.
While the reading from Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10 is a parallel condemnation of sinful clergy, the second reading from 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13 is the confession of a hard-working, holy man dedicated to the mission. Indeed, it seems Saint Paul could have had the gospel passage from Luke in mind, because he denies having any of the faults that we hear Jesus condemning today. Instead, he describes himself with the words: "we were gentle among you as a nursing mother cares for her children" (v.7b)--an interesting use of feminine imagery to describe Apostolic ministry. This passage clearly highlights Saint Paul's indefatigable preaching and laboring on behalf of the Gospel and the people. His orientation is completely on the good of the people, a result of his deep prayer relationship with God. It would seem to me that Jesus would have been well-pleased with Saint Paul.
Let us sit with these readings today and ponder which image we are most like most of the time--the greedy, snobbish, selfish clergy in Malachi and Luke, or the hard-working, giving, prayerful servant of God in 1 Thessalonians--and ask God the Holy Spirit for the virtues we need to rid our lives of hypocrisy so that we too would show the solicitude and gentleness of a nursing mother for her children to all in need.
Br. Paul, OP
For those of my readers who wear habits and have religious titles, you know the other side of the story--how these things can actually help ministry by making it clear that we religious, priests, and deacons belong to the people we serve. A habit, for example, sets a person apart in a crowd, but not merely to stand out, but to announce to the others that they can approach that habited person for help, for conversation, and for brotherly or sisterly love.