31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - The Power of Compassion

Religious leaders do not come off too well in today's first and Gospel readings.  Over the last few weeks we have seen Jesus as He parries with the chief priests and elders of the people; now he takes on the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. The reading from Malachi is an indictment against religious leaders who have been guilty of violating their responsibility as teachers - they have not observed God's ways and have taught falsely.  They failed in their roles as leaders and teachers. 

It doesn't take much to  hear these passages without applying them to the continuing scandal of clergy abuse within our Church.  All religious teachers, and anyone holding positions of authority, have to take these reading to heart.

The readings hit very close to home.  As I write this reflection, breaking headlines reveal that a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church has been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse - the first time in the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised. Both he and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were charged with one misdemeanor count each involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photographs of girls as recently as this year.

But the scriptures speak not only to certain religious leaders, but to all believers.  We all must search our consciences, not because we have committed similar crimes, but because we all fall short of the ideals we profess and teach.  We certainly are aware of our responsibilities to teach by word and example.  Yet as we reflect at the end of a day on how well we lived up to what we profess and teach, we know we fall short. 

Jesus is not accusing the scribes and Pharisees of not knowing their religion.  They knew it very well.  They were even good at teaching it to others; it is just that they didn’t practice what they taught and preached.  These strict teachers made religious observance very difficult for the ordinary person, and Jesus accuses them of taking a position they themselves do not follow.  Nor, He says, do they do anything to relieve the heavy burdens they have imposed on others. 

But there is more to today's Gospel than simply listening to Jesus scold the Pharisees and scribes.  Beneath His words, Jesus is addressing the concept of religious power and what can happen when that power is misused.  In the eyes of most of his contemporaries, Jesus was a minor celebrity, a passing fad, a faint blip on the screen... uninteresting and unimportant.  He spent most of his adult life on the margin of society and religion.  Jesus was an ordinary Jewish layman who abandoned his livelihood and hometown - who voluntarily became jobless and homeless. He became the uninivited houseguest who always relied on the kindness of strangers, and who undertook a prophetic ministry within a world where a privileged aristocracy contolled the Temple, its liturgy, its priesthood, its jobs, its markets, its income and its idealogies.

The problem with an elite system of power - the problem with being in charge - is that one can get very used to it.  Before long, one can actually start to believe, with all one's heart, that he/she is in charge of everything, of everyone.  And that is a dangerous place for a person to be.  Being a layperson was Jesus' ticket to certain failure in a world where those who "have" get more, and those who "have not" get had.  What is even more unbelievable is that Jesus willingly embraced this state of being - all the way to the cross.  He became what he healed and He became the death that He died.  And in that, He became the triumph of Easter and the power of the Empty Tomb.

This is the "power" that Jesus meant all of us to share - the power to join together, to claim our beliefs as our own - not borrowed from or brokered by the powerful - and the power to act on our beliefs.  It is the power that enables us to meet Risen Jesus by seeking Him in the presence of the poor, in the thick of life, in the least and the littlest, in a community gathered together around a table, in bread and in wine.

Benedict XVI has just declared that 2012 will be the "Year of the Faith" as part of an evangelization initiative in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening the Second Vatican Council. As we prepare to remember the impact that the Council has had on our Church - or should have had - we should first and foremost remember that we are called to become a church that doesn't fear to dream; a church unafraid to become what it heals; a church that doesn't fear the body or its failures; a church that isn't afraid to fail, to forgive or to seek forgiveness; a church that isn't afraid to speak to power.  We are called to become a church that knows death is the path to life.

We must dare to become that kind of community -  as John XXIII once described, a "community of peace, willing to walk along the road with anyone as far as possible."  Jesus shows us that the goal of being a disciple is not canonization, but compassion.  It is the capacity to live fiercely, to love radically, and to walk humbly with the God whose gift of self arrives always and only in the company of strangers.