Today's two readings are perfectly juxtaposed. The Pharisees cared about outward appearances and the apostles cared about interior spirituality. The Pharisees were there to profit and the apostles were there to serve. The apostles, unlike the Pharisees were motivated by love. They put their own glory aside and sought the glory of God and the good of the people - giving themselves fully to the cause.
The qualities of the apostles are marks of good leaders. Who wouldn’t want to follow someone who so deeply cares about them? But real change and improvement is hard. The apostles talk about the “demands” they make and how God “tests our hearts”. They don’t pretend that this process is easy. They also compare themselves to nurses taking care of children. In essence, following the leadership of the apostles means humbling oneself and acknowledging a need for teaching, guidance, and discipline.
When reading Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees, it’s easy think about how pathetic that lot was, and how great it is that we are not like them. But are we really so different? Don’t we also find it easier to distract ourselves with improvements to our outward appearance? While not in themselves bad, isn’t it easier to post a Facebook picture of our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, join a church group, wear a cross necklace, or even get a tattoo of scripture than it is to make changes that would go unseen? Learning discipline and patience when we are most tested, making time for prayer and adoration even when we are very busy, going to confession regularly… These are all things that require time and effort and will receive little recognition. In fact, these activities could even mean receiving negative attention. If friends find out that we are doing these things, would we be socially crucified? Would people think we were weird and judge us? We want to look like good people…but maybe not that good.
There is a lot of talk in our day about appearances. The superficial nature of Millennials or Gen Zers - thanks to Facebook and Instagram - is decried regularly. But it’s worth noting that this is not a new struggle for fallen human nature. What is considered a good appearance may have changed but the problem of focusing on the outside and neglecting our interior spiritual health has remained constant throughout the ages. And it is just as it hard for us as it was for the Pharisees to put aside appearances and make real improvements on what really matters.
Dear Jesus, help us to overcome our tendency to default to what is easiest, and give us the courage to face the areas in our spiritual lives that need real work. Inspire us to put in the effort even when no one will notice. Help us to remember that living up to God’s expectations, rather than those of others, is to be our highest priority.