The Priesthood, A Life of Sacrifice
November 3, 2002 Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10)
Reading II (1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13)
Gospel (St. Matthew 23:1-12)
In the readings this morning, we hear about priesthood, we hear about the exalted call that God has given to priests. They are to bring glory to His Name, He tells us in the prophet Malachi. The very purpose for which a priest is ordained is to give glory to God. A priest is not ordained for himself; he is ordained for God and for the people. But what happens is that one can very easily, in our humanness, get caught up in the self. If we think about what God is telling the priests of the Old Testament, how if they do not give glory to His Name, if they do not bring His glory to the nations, but instead act in a manner which is contemptible that He will turn their blessing into a curse, and, in fact, He will make them contemptible before all of the nations, that was the Old Testament priesthood.
When we look at the dignity of the Old Testament priesthood, God chose for Himself the people of one tribe, the tribe of Levi, to be His priests. All the other eleven tribes had specific areas in Israel that were given to them to be their land where their particular group was going to be able to live. But the tribe of Levi did not receive an inheritance among the people, and the reason is because God said, “I am your inheritance.” And so we recognize the exalted nature of the priesthood in the Old Testament, that God Himself was to be the inheritance of the priests, that they were not supposed to worry about worldly things like their property and all of the things that would go along with that. They were supposed to be able to focus on God. Their life was to be one of prayer; it was to be one of preaching the Word of God and service to the people. The people were to take care of the priests, and the priests were to take care of the people. It was just that simple. And all the people recognized that.
We recall from the Old Testament that the people did not like the idea that only the people of the tribe of Levi could be priests. But it was because of their disobedience. Initially, God had intended that all of the people of Israel would be priests, but because of their disobedience out in the desert, God removed the priesthood from all the other tribes. Only Phineas and the tribe of Levi stood up for God in the midst of the rebellion with the golden calf, therefore, they were awarded the priesthood.
Now in the New Testament, the priesthood is exalted almost infinitely beyond that of the Old Testament because the priest today stands in the very person of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, each priest was his own priest. In the New Testament, there is only one priest and every man who is called to the priesthood shares in that same priesthood. It is the priesthood of Jesus Christ. He is our High Priest, as Saint Paul makes very clear in his Letter to the Hebrews. And so every single priest, then, shares in the very priesthood of Jesus Christ.
When a man is ordained to be a priest, there is actually and literally a change that happens in him; it is called an ontological change, which means a change in his very being so that he stands literally and actually in the very Person of Jesus Christ. So when he stands at the altar, he does not say, “This is the Body of Jesus, which is given up for you,” but he says, “This is My Body.” When he sits in the confessional, he does not say, “God forgives you,” but he says, “I absolve you from your sins.” Now there is no power that any man by himself has to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, nor is there any power by himself that any man possesses to be able to absolve people of their sins. Even the people of Capernaum at the time of Jesus, when He looked at the man who was paralyzed and said, “Your sins are forgiven,” they complained and said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” No one. But Jesus Christ is God, and the priest of the New Testament shares in the very priesthood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is God working through the humanity of the priest, just as the divinity of Christ worked through the humanity of Jesus 2,000 years ago. So that continues. But the priesthood is a share in Jesus Himself, in the very Person of Christ, and His divinity continues to work through the humanity of the priest.
This is why in the Gospel reading (speaking about the people of the Old Testament) Jesus could say that the scribes and Pharisees sit upon the seat of Moses. They share in the dignity of Moses. But now the priest shares in the dignity of Jesus Christ. And so Jesus said about the scribes and Pharisees – who were not priests, by the way, but they sat on the seat of Moses to give instruction – “Do whatever they tell you to do, but do not do what they do because they bind up heavy loads to put on other people’s shoulders but will not lift a finger to help them.” Now those scribes and Pharisees of the Old Testament at least were preaching the truth. The Pharisees, remember, were legalists; they were very clear about what could and could not be done. They preached the truth – they just did not live it.
I must say that from my own experience, one of the most difficult things about being a priest is to stand here in the pulpit and tell people what the truth is and then go to confession and have to acknowledge that I am not necessarily practicing what I preach. One feels quite like a hypocrite doing such a thing, until you realize that the obligation is to preach the truth to people even if you are not living it yourself. And then, of course, we are called to practice what we preach. We are called to live lives of holiness. And so the point of the whole matter is simply this: that we are called as priests of Jesus Christ to give glory to God, to humble ourselves in order to exalt the Lord.
Now we see the dichotomy in the readings today between the priests who served themselves, between the priests who became contemptible before the nations because they did not do what God was calling them to do, and the other side: what a priest is supposed to be. We see that in Saint Paul. He tells us in the second reading that he spent himself in toil and drudgery day and night, working so that he would be no burden to the people. He preached to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They could see by his actions that he was living what he preached, and his actions spoke far more eloquently than his words. In fact, we look at his Letter to the Galatians and he compares himself to the superapostles. He himself tells us that the people suggested that while he was with them his words were not particularly bold, that he was not necessarily the greatest speaker in the world and he did not compare with the superapostles in the way that he preached. But they saw his life.
It reminds me of Father Raymond Zweber, who was for many years the pastor at Saint Augustine’s parish. If anyone ever went over there, you know fully well that Father Zweber was by no stretch of the imagination the best preacher in the diocese. He stuttered; he uhmmed and aahed his way through the homilies; he paused; he got lost; he was rambling all over the place at times – and nobody cared because what he preached to them was the truth, and he preached it from the heart. All the people could see that he was absolutely in love with Jesus and Mary, and they flocked to him. Not because he had any kind of scintillating homilies that wowed everybody with how incredible they were and the words that he used and all that, because that was not the case. He spoke the truth in love. When he took over Saint Augustine’s parish, there were 8 people who were coming to daily Mass; when he died, there were nearly 200 people coming to daily Mass because of his love for God, because he worked day and night in toil and drudgery to serve the people. It is what Saint Paul did. It is what Our Lord tells us we are supposed to do. “The one who is the greatest among you,” He says, “is the one who serves the rest.”
The life of a priest is a life of sacrifice. It is to be a life of service poured out for the people. It is not to be a life of selfishness; it is not to be a life of indulgence; it is not to be a life where “everybody should be serving me because I stand in the Person of Jesus Christ” because that is not the way that Jesus lived His life. We are to continue, as priests, to live the life of Jesus Christ in this world. Jesus came to serve and not to be served, and that is what a priest is called to be: to be a servant to the people, to preach the truth and to live it in his life. He is called to a life of holiness, to be united to God in prayer, to be spending long hours in prayer so that he will be able to know the Will of God and bring that to the people. The Church teaches us that the first obligation of the priest is to preach, to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of God so that they will know the truth and be able to live it in their own lives. But as it was with Saint Paul, as it was with Jesus, as it was with all the other apostles, and as it has been with every saint who was a priest, you have to live it – not just preach it. We have an obligation to preach the truth even if we do not live it out, but many more lives are going to be touched by the lived reality of the Gospel than by preaching pious pablum and not living it at all.
So for each one of us, then, we are called to be able to recognize the dignity of the office of the priesthood and the dignity of the office of the episcopate. We recognize that the individuals who are in those offices very often do not live according to the dignity which has been given to them. They are called, each one, to give glory to God – not to give glory to themselves. They are called to live their lives for God and for the people. But even if they do not, we still must keep in mind the dignity of the office and we must uphold that dignity. That is why Our Lady, many times over, has asked, “No matter what a priest does, do not gossip about him.” Pray for him and let her take care of him. She is their mother; she is the Mother of Jesus Christ and they are standing in the Person of Christ; she will handle them. Just pray for them. If they are preaching the truth, do what they say. Do not necessarily follow their example if they are not living the truth that they preach, but at least listen to what the message of the Gospel is and live according to the Gospel. If they are preaching heresy, if they are preaching falsehood, or if they are preaching themselves, then just focus on Jesus and ignore what they are telling you. Hear the truth of the Gospel and live it; that is what it comes down to.
Now having said all that about those who are called to be sacramental priests, we recognize also that each one of us, through Baptism, is a priest and a prophet and a king. When we look in our society, we tend to think of people who have powerful positions as being the great ones. If we look 3,000 years ago, we see King David, who has been given all the authority as the king in Israel; and all David wanted was one thing, and that was to be a priest. But he could not because he was from the wrong tribe. He was not a Levite but a Judahite, and he wanted to be a priest. You are a king. You are a priest. You are a prophet. You share in those offices because of your baptism into Jesus Christ. God has exalted you beyond anything that anyone would have been able to imagine. The baptismal priesthood, we need to be very clear, is entirely different from the sacramental priesthood, so we cannot compare those two. I am a priest by Baptism and a priest by ordination, two different orders of priesthood.
Nonetheless, each and every one of us, through Baptism, is a priest. We are called, each one, to give glory to God. We are called, each one of us, to bring the Gospel out into the world – not only by the way that we speak, but especially by the way that we live. And we are called, each one of us, to humble ourselves, to become the servant of all, to exalt God. That is our call as Christian people. And as Catholic people, we understand what the priesthood is all about and we are called to live it. Not according to the example of so many that we see around us, but according to the example of Jesus Christ, our High Priest, and to all of the saints who have lived that call that the Lord has given to them. As I have said so many times, God needs saints today, and He is calling each one of us to be saints, to be holy. He is calling each one of us to be the prophet and the priest and the king that He has made us in Baptism, to live holy lives, to give glory to God, and to serve our neighbor.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording with minimal editing.