by Father Christopher Heanue
A few years ago, a daughter of a permanent deacon told me that she had completely left the faith because she was tired of hearing her father preach against moral faults that he himself possessed. She could not separate the content of her father’s words from the example of his own actions. He was condemning rather than leading. His hypocrisy gave him no credibility to speak about morality. He was trying to lead others in ways that he himself had not yet mastered.
Hypocrisy is certainly a problem for anyone who tries to be an ethical teacher. A mother once asked Gandhi to tell her child to stop eating sugar. Gandhi told the mother to go home and to come back in two weeks. Though the mother was perplexed, she came back with her son two weeks later. This time, Gandhi said to the boy: “You should stop eating sugar. It is not good for your health.” After the boy agreed, the woman asked Gandhi why he waited two weeks to chastise her son. He replied: “Mother, two weeks ago I was still eating sugar myself.”
Like Gandhi, preachers of the Gospel of Christ have to guard against hypocrisy. Christ criticizes those who “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” (Mt 23:4)
There is always the danger that a preacher will lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of his listeners without being willing to shoulder those burdens himself. The Church always needs more preachers that are authentic witnesses to Christian morality.
We must also remember, however, that most of us fail to achieve full moral consistency in this life. If we are honest and open about our own limitations, we can use that brokenness to help others.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Christ describes two sons. One promises to work in his father’s vineyard but does not follow through. The other at first refuses to help but later changes his mind. Both of them were flawed. Both of them were disobedient. But one of them eventually saw the error of his ways and repented. It was he who ultimately did his father’s will.
In his great book “The Wounded Healer,” Henri Nouwen writes about the vocation of an imperfect minister to direct others to God’s healing message: “Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.” I have tried to take Nouwen’s words to heart during my own ministry of preaching. Most of my homilies are homilies that I need to hear myself.
Most of us who participate in Sunday Mass regularly know that we are imperfect, that we are sinners, that we are so often hypocritical. We do not attend Mass because we are perfect; we attend because we are imperfect. It is only God who can heal and perfect us. This is true of parishioners and preachers alike.
God the Father is searching for authentic witnesses, men and women who will give their word to love and serve Him, and in their weakness, will work to inspire others. Let each of us strive to be such witnesses.
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Philippians 2:1-11 OR 2:1-5
Father Heanue is the administrator of the Holy Child Jesus – St Benedict Joseph Labre parish, Richmond Hill.