Monday, November 6, 2023

On the virtue of meekness: Homily for the Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

"The Arrest of Christ", follower of Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516, Noordbrabants Museum.

My dear brothers and sisters,

The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is like a perennial stream, for those of us who labour through the desert of life. He is a clear stream always offering water for those who thirst, a reference point for those who have lost their way. Even today, in the Gospel we just heard, he offers words of wisdom that we should take seriously, in particular, the virtue of meekness.

Consider these words which we just heard proclaimed in the Gospel:

The scribes and the Pharisees

have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.

Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,

but do not follow their example.

For they preach but they do not practice.

We may not live among the Pharisees today, but we continue to have leaders, both within the Church and outside, who fail to live up to their responsibilities, who in many ways, and often times, are grave disappointments, if not reason for scandal. What should our response to these men (and women) be?

In the words of Christ:

do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,

but do not follow their example.

For they preach but they do not practice.

In other words, meekly follow the good they preach, regardless of their own personal practice. Too often have we heard people say, I stopped going to church, or for Mass, because of the way that priest behaved. Christ Himself tells us today, this is no good reason to stop going to mass, or abandon our Holy Mother, the Church. Rather, even while acknowledging the problematic behaviour, we should continue to follow their teaching.

When Our Lord asks us to “observe all things whatsoever they tell you” he is referring to the various practices of the Mosaic law. Translating it to our times, it would mean that we follow all the pious practices that our ecclesial leaders counsel us to do, and all of the teaching of our Holy Mother Church. The misbehaviour of priests, or others, is no reason to reject their teaching, which we must comply with in the spirit of meekness.

Some translations of the Gospel that we heard today, substitute the phrase “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses”, with the phrase “have occupied the chair of Moses”. When reading this translation some days ago I was struck by the various meanings of the word occupied. It could, mean that the person sitting on the seat is doing so illegally, or illicitly. In other words, they do not have a right to that chair. Even if it were so, Our Lord suggests, we are required to obey them if what they teach is in conformity with the law.

What does Christ counsel us therefore when we are faced with a situation that we do not like? Or one that is objectively wrong? Christ offers us the virtue of meekness. For those of you who were at Mass on All Souls Days you would have heard Christ preach to us: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Today, he offers us a way to understand meekness more concretely.

Now some of you may come up after Mass and say, or go away from Mass thinking, he is saying this because he will soon be a priest and is only seeking to strengthen the power of the priests over the laity. I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth!

I am suggesting the practice of the virtue of meekness because this is something I am struggling with myself. I am preaching the importance of this virtue because I have realised that this is one of the virtues that will help up us restore the brokenness in the world we live in.

You see, we live in a revolutionary world. A world where rather than leave things in the hands of God who is the final judge, and a just judge, like revolutionaries we seek to address matters ourselves. The problem is, however, as Pope Benedict XVI has so eloquently elaborated, revolutionary attitudes only bring about more pain and suffering since we take on the challenge of being God. When we see something that we don’t like, we decide that we are going to fix the matter and bring about a resolution of the problem. The trouble is, in soi doing we often only create a new problem, or worse compound the existing crises infinitely more.

I should add, however, that meekness does not mean that we simply sit on the sidelines and do nothing, bleating away like Mary’s little lambs. On the contrary, following the teaching of the Church, would require us to respectfully, graciously, sympathetically, point out the problems in our brothers’ behaviour. Don’t forget that admonishing the sinner is one of the spiritual acts of mercy.

Now, it is possible that we will suffer the repercussions of this act of mercy, but to suffer these repercussions, and respond proportionately and justly to them, is a part of our practice of the virtue of meekness, acts for which we will be rewarded at the end of our lives and on the day of judgment. Sometimes, however, there is nothing to be done. We must just suffer in silence and offer it up. Under no circumstances, however, are we allowed to discredit the office that these leaders hold. On the contrary, our Lord seems to be quite clear that we obey these sinful men precisely because of the high office that they occupy.

As for these sinful men, let us leave them to the true judge of this world. He has already assured us in our reading this Sunday from the Prophet Malachi:

If you do not listen,

if you do not lay it to heart,

to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,

I will send a curse upon you


I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways

At the end of the day, the virtue of meekness, is about recognising the power and the faithfulness of the true judge of the world in our lives here on earth. Let us, therefore, make our own the words we heard in the psalm today:

O LORD, my heart is not proud,

nor are my eyes haughty;

I busy not myself with great things,

nor with things too sublime for me.

(A version of this homily was first preached on 5 November 2023 to the congregation at the Chiesa di San Silvestro in Capite, Rome.)

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