Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time: November 5, 2023

Matthew 23: 1-12

Fr. John Tran

Lifting a finger: such a small act. Lifting a finger: the only smaller bodily movement would be the blinking of an eye. It is an expression we often use, isn't it? We say,“ After what he did, after what she said, I would not lift a finger to help him, to help her!” This is exactly what Jesus' problem with the scribes and Pharisees is in today's gospel. Today's gospel is all about lifting a finger.

A man arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big mustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.” We’ve been given a great task – to live in harmony, to weep with the mournful, to laugh with the joyful, to be humble, not conceited. Especially, we are called to be righteous, but not self-righteous. We are to be selfless, God-centered, loving servants as Jesus commands. That is what a disciple of Jesus looks like.

It is not really the way the Pharisees observed the Law; they were, to the that time, the living examples of what a religious person would look like. It is not even that they taught the wrong things about the Law Moses had handed on. What was the problem then? Rather it was that while they were generous in sharing the teaching, they were not generous in sharing love, either God's love or their own. They could not see their kinship with the wrong doer. Think of the scene in the gospel when the Pharisee looked down on the tax collector. Think of how Jesus interacted with the outcast and the sinner.

Now, let us get back to the importance of 'lifting a finger.' In refusing to lift a finger, we are not only refusing to lift our own finger, but we are also refusing to lift God's. Just like the Pharisee, we are made in God's image. That in itself should make the Pharisee and us instruments of bringing God's mercy and love to others. But in addition, we Christians have been made part of the Body of Christ, by what Jesus has done for us, and by this made us the Father's children. Yes, if we lift a finger, and only a finger, much can be done: making that phone call to a lonely elderly person, to some who lost a loved one, having a 35 second conversation with a student or co-worker at school, whom everyone mocks. Or like Albert Schweitzer, noticing someone who needs help with a suitcase.

These small acts can not only be a life-saver to someone else, but can draw us closer to Christ; they can draw other too. Through lifting a finger we can be marked as a disciple of Christ.

When the Pharisee compared himself to the tax collector, he judged and saw no connection between himself and the sinner. He did not lift a finger; he made no effort to reach out to a fellow human being in misery. If we make no effort to walk with a fellow sinner, we have no room to criticize.

After all, “the greatest among you must be a servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” To not lift a finger can make a Pharisee of us all.