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Sunday 05 November 2017: Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

They do not practise what they preach.

In you Lord, I have found my peaceToday’s gospel reading tells us how the community for whom Matthew wrote recalled the Saviour’s teaching concerning leadership of God’s people. The leadership Jesus criticised was the outcome of a complex development. There was no single authority that interpreted the faith of old Israel. The Law of Moses, the ‘torah’, was handed down in the biblical traditions as the expression of God’s authority. The priests of the temple were the traditional custodians of the rituals that gave expression to the people’s covenant obligations. The teaching of the prophets was a spontaneous expression of guidance, like a conscience of the nation. The scribes were students of the Law who interpreted its contents. The Pharisees formed a popular movement, seeking to revive the nation’s religious practice. Jesus acknowledged that it is these various groups who ‘occupy the chair of Moses’ – if the Law is to be interpreted faithfully, it is only these various authorities who can provide this interpretation. He criticised them, however, because they ‘do not practice what they preach’. His criticism echoed the age-old teaching of the prophet. If they had the true spirit of the covenant (that should have been the very soul of Israel’s faith) they would not interpret what the covenant required of God’s people in a way that made it next to impossible for the common people to give faithful observance. Though they should have helped the nation to be one family under their ‘one Father in heaven’, they interpreted the Law in such a way that their elaborate observance gave them an elite status - which they celebrated by wearing the trappings self-importance and seeing themselves as deserving the admiration of the common people they despised.

In the stern words of Jesus we have another example of a peculiarity of the Aramaic idiom that is puzzling to our ears – its lack of a manner of expressing a qualified negative. Clearly, Jesus is not denying the role of ‘fathers’ and ‘teachers’ in our human life. He is condemning the elitist pretensions currently being associated with such terms by the scribes and the Pharisees. Heeding the teaching of Christ, God’s people will recognise their fundamental equality before their common Father. Those called to positions of leadership among them will make themselves ‘the last of all and the servants of all’ (Mk 9:35); and all those who claim to be committed followers of the Lord must be on their guard against the spirit of self-importance that can be so damaging to the life of the Christian community.

Extract by John Thornhill sm - read more at The Emmaus Series

Melbourne Cup Day – 07 November 2017

The Melbourne Cup is not a religious feast. But it is a deeply rooted Australian ritual that says much about the strengths and weaknesses of our culture. It has always had something slightly anarchic about it. Bosses used to complain about workers who took time off for it. From the early days of radio, many schools would halt for a few minutes while the Cup was broadcast through the class rooms. In some theological colleges the invigilator would silently write the name of the Cup winner on the blackboard during the afternoon exam.

The Cup itself has always been a time to celebrate high fashion in the social columns of magazines. But high fashion has often been undercut in Melbourne Cup Week, once memorably by visiting English model Jean Shrimpton whose simple dress left everyone else looking massively overdressed. More recently the classy dressers in the stands and hospitality tents have had the Micky taken out of them by youngsters in the carparks, dressed in tuxes, tennis shoes and op-shop specials.

And of course in the Catholic world where racing was seen as slightly but honourably disreputable, a Catholic Melbourne Cup winning jockey was feted as highly as a Catholic Collingwood football captain. Indeed, before a huge crowd at a devotional event at the MCG, Jack Purtell and Phonse Kyne each recited a decade of the Rosary. The prevailing Catholic attitude to the Cup was caught by a devout Catholic lady at a retreat. Helping out a young preacher who was trying to explain that there was more to faith than saying prayers, she asked him, ‘Do you mean that prayer is important, but that it’s no substitute for a day at the Melbourne Cup’. He agreed.

That is one side of the Melbourne Cup. Of course, the other side is the way it has been taken over by big money and used to promote engines of misery – the abuse of tobacco, and of alcohol and of gambling that impoverish so many Australian families. As in so much of Australian life, the interests of little Australians are exploited by big corporations. That is why for many people from impoverished and migrant backgrounds, including those with whom we work at Jesuit Social Services, the Melbourne Cup is of no interest. For them belongs to an unattainable world of ready money and corporate excess.

But the Melbourne Cup is a ritual that often upsets predictions and brings to light people who are real and values that are true. The story of Michelle Payne, woman and jockey, who won the cup on a hundred to one outsider, attended by her brother who was born with Downs Syndrome, is just one of many that raises the Melbourne Cup out of diminishment to its human size.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ