Practice what you preach. It’s one of those Biblical phrases that has worked its way into our language and culture, and we repeat it, whether or not we realize where it came from. Although it’s a slight reworking of Jesus’ exact words, it’s undeniable that the phrase comes from this gospel that we have just heard.
Typically, you hear this phrase spoken when someone is not living up to the moral standards that they have set for others. It’s meant as a warning and an exhortation to be a man or woman of integrity.
For me, this phrase always reminds me of the Rite of Ordination. When I was ordained a deacon, the Archbishop handed me the Book of the Gospels and said, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” For the deacon, as well as the priest, his life is expected to conform in a special way to the Christian way of life, so that he may be a good example to the flock of Jesus Christ.
I hardly need to mention why it’s so crucial for the clergy to practice what we preach. After all, we certainly do a lot of preaching. But I think that this principle holds true for every Christian, and it causes us to ask ourselves, “Is our way of living consistent with the faith we profess?”
It is scandalous to others, both inside and outside the Church, when a Christian sins. Sometimes it’s in small ways, sometimes in egregious and public ways. Every sin conveys the message that we don’t really believe the things we say we believe. Why? Because it demonstrates a lack of trust in God. It demonstrates that although we know God’s commandments, they are merely optional, and breaking them will produce no negative consequences.
This is the mistaken way of thinking that the Israelites had fallen into time after time. For this reason, God raised up prophet after prophet to warn the people and call them to repentance. Last in the line of these Old Testament prophets was Malachi, whose words we just heard in the first reading. At the time of Malachi, the people of Israel had returned from the Babylonian captivity, and they had resettled Judah and began to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, they had grown lax in their observance of the law, and thus broke their covenant with God.
It’s interesting here that God, thru the prophet Malachi, is most stern in his warning towards the priests. He chastises them for not teaching the law, and he scolds them for being a bad example towards the people. Jesus, too, is most critical of the scribes and Pharisees, who were the faith leaders of the Jewish community. They had been called from among the people to serve as guides and examples in the observance of their religion! It’s embarrassing that they weren’t living up to the call they had received. For us today, it’s a sobering warning to anyone who is in a position of leadership in the Church.
Contrast the poor behavior and negligence of the Levitical priests and the scribes and Pharisees with the figure of St. Paul. In the second reading, St. Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians for receiving the gospel, believing in it, and bearing fruit. St. Paul recalls how he worked night and day to proclaim the gospel and to share his very self with the people. St. Paul, then, is a prime example of a shepherd who feeds his flock. I pray that I, for one, can live up to the example of selflessness that St. Paul has set for us.
Now, it is tempting to think that these warnings are meant only for us priests of the Church of Jesus Christ. After all, both Malachi and Jesus are addressing the failures of the leaders. But if we examine the teaching in the light of the domestic Church, we find a much broader application.
What is the domestic Church? Well, it’s about $2 cheaper than an import Church. Just kidding. The domestic Church is a term used in one of the documents of Vatican II called Lumen Gentium. Allow me to quote just a few sentences from the document:
From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.
In short, the family is like the Church in miniature, with the parents as its leaders. The parents have a special call to make disciples of the little Christians within the four walls of their home.
- They teach their children the prayers of the Church and show them how to live as Christians. In doing so, they perform the role of a prophet within their home.
- Furthermore, parents constantly make sacrifices out of love for these young brothers and sisters. In doing so, they perform a priestly function.
- And even further, they establish the rules of the home and form the moral compass of these little ones. In doing so, they govern the home as a king governs his kingdom.
Acting as priest, prophet, and king, the parents of a family answer the call that they received in baptism, and they live out their vocation to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
Yet, no matter how hard we try, no parent, and no priest, is perfect. We all fail from time to time, either by our actions or by our failure to act. And our failures send a message to the little ones, whether young in age or young in their life of faith. I certainly don’t have to remind the parents among us that kids pick up on everything adults do. After all, kids want nothing more than to be adults. So it is natural that their whole childhood is one long training period for adulthood. They hear and copy everything!
Just the other day, when I was on pilgrimage in France, I was walking thru the streets, looking for a particular church where our group would celebrate Mass. There were families and tourists of all ages milling about the streets. I walked ahead of our group of pilgrims, spotted the church, and shouted back to the deacon, “The Church is down there.” Immediately, I heard my words echoed,an octave higher, “The Church is down there.” Followed by, “Dad, I think he’s English! He sounds like he’s English!” For just a moment, I wanted to turn around and display my patriotism by declaring that I am, in fact, from ‘Murica, but I thought it better to keep walking and let the boy have his moment. Anyways, the point is, even in a country where you assume they don’t speak your language, kids are always watching and listening to adults.
And because they are always watching, they can tell when an adult is being hypocritical. They know that there is a double standard when they witness an adult doing the same thing for which they were just punished. And it’s most obvious in the way that we adults practice the faith. When we pray with our kids, they learn to imitate us. When we make Mass a priority, they know what’s expected of them as adults. And when we go to confession as a family, they know that this is a normal part of being Catholic. You parents are the faith leaders of your domestic Church. And so, every parent can learn a lesson from Jesus and Malachi’s message today. We must all practice what we preach.
When we fail in this regard, it is scandalous to others, especially to those who are outside the Church, but also to those who are in the Church. Many of our brothers and sisters fall away from their faith nowadays. And when asked why they left, many of them will say that the Church is full of hypocrites. To which, I am always tempted to respond, “There’s always room for one more.” Because we know we fail sometimes, and each sin we commit makes hypocrites of us all. Oftentimes, the ones who leave are reluctant to examine their own lives and recognize that the line between good and evil runs thru every human heart. We are all capable of great evil, just as we are all capable of great good. It takes a lifetime of trial, error, learning, and improving to live up to the standard of being a child of God. As Christians, we recognize the difficulty of living a virtuous and holy life, and we acknowledge our immense need for God’s grace and the assistance of our fellow Christians. Yet, how hard it is to bring new disciples to Christ when the sins of Christians so frequently give scandal.
But what if it’s the clergy themselves who give scandal, as regrettably we so often read about in the news? In these cases, our Lord instructs his disciples to “Do what they tell you but do not follow their example.” The poor actions of our leaders should not prevent us from hearing the truth of the message they teach. When we hear of scandals committed by Christians, it is not the Christian message that is to blame, it is the weakness and sin of the individual Christian. The mature disciple can accept the truth of Christ even in the face of the failures of his priests.
Next, our Lord gives a threefold teaching about naming our leaders. He instructs us to call no one “Rabbi,” to call no one “father,” and to call no one “master.” Now, we get a lot of criticism from non-Catholics about this one. “It says right there, ‘call no one your father,’ and yet you Catholics call your priests ‘father!’” Well, before I respond to that objection, let’s consider for a moment the other two: “Rabbi” and “master.” I think it’s fair to translate “Rabbi” to “teacher” and to translate “master” to “boss.” We all have teachers in school, and most of us have bosses at work, unless, of course, you are the teacher or the boss. And who among us doesn’t have a father in the biological sense? Is Jesus asking us to deny these simple relationships in our lives? I don’t think so. In the context of this teaching about hypocritical leaders, it is much more plausible to read this passage as a warning not to place all of our hopes and dreams into any particular teacher, father-figure, or boss. What we must guard against is what we often call the “cult of personality.”
I can remember so many heroic figures that I looked up to as a boy. Athletes, musicians, the cool kid at school. They seemed to have everything figured out, and they never seemed to struggle. It was like there was a shining halo around them, and they could do no wrong. But sooner or later, their weaknesses did show. Turns out they didn’t have it all figured out, and some of them even went from being a star to being a criminal. The cult of personality and celebrity and the so-called “hero worship” of childhood soon fades.
Even though we may have inspiring teachers, a great father who raised us, or the most generous and thoughtful boss, these are all still human. They are still sinners like the rest of us. Even your priest is going to make mistakes, because he is human too. Why, then, do we call him father? Because the titles we use indicate roles of service, not of privilege. “The greatest among you must be your servant.” When you call your priest “father,” it is a reminder to him of his commitment of service to the Church.
The mature Christian doesn’t place individuals on a pedestal. The mature Christian places his/her hopes and dreams in the Holy Spirit as teacher, in the Christ as master, and in our Heavenly Father as the perfect parent. Then, with God as the center of our lives, we will not wander when our leaders disappoint us.
Finally, Jesus reminds his disciples of the importance of humility. The humble disciple does not exalt himself, but rather allows God to exalt him to glory. I think St. Bernadette summed it up when she said,
What will be the crown of those who, humble within and humiliated without, have imitated the humility of our Savior in all its fullness!
We who follow the example of our Lord’s humility will share in his exaltation. Though he endured the cross of shame, he reigns now in glory. Let us imitate Christ in all things, and so preach the gospel by our very lives.
 Rite of Ordination of Deacons, 210
 Lumen Gentium, 11
 Matthew 23:11