It doesn’t take divine wisdom to accept the saying of Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel reading that people, especially moral and religious teachers, should “practise what they preach” (Mt 23:3)! Surely it is just common sense?
In fact, it makes sense to extend this adage to all who give advice to others and would easily apply to any person of faith. Surely we should practise what we believe, even if we are not called to preach?
Of course, proverbial utterances of this kind have the character of slogans which seem obvious, until one casts a critical gaze on them. For slogans often turn out to be half-truths and therefore half falsehoods.
Clearly the context of the utterance is essential, for it only makes sense when we are speaking of good conduct. Hitler preached the “final solution” in regard to the Jewish people, but it would have been infinitely better for our world, and not just the unfortunate victims, if Hitler had not practised what he preached! Indeed, sometimes when people do not practise what they preach, their bad example may encourage others to change their ways.
After all, St Peter wasn’t great at practising his preaching when he promised to give his life for his Lord and ended up denying him three times! And he didn’t turn out that bad in the end!
In criticising the Pharisees in this famous text, Jesus is pointing out their pride, especially their vanity, in seeking the admiration of others. In this light, insisting that they should practise what they preach could be seen as an antidote to their pride.
I believe this is the case when we focus on an obvious meaning of “practising” which includes in its meaning, an imperfection. If you are practising, you are not yet perfect. After all we say, don’t we: “practise makes perfect.”
So the person who practises must be humble, learning from mistakes, being willing to start again. We might think of obvious examples of musicians, or actors, or people in sports.
A slightly different example, but in the same general field, is the way we speak about a “General Practitioner” who has a “medical practice.” It may sound odd to take literally the notion that with each patient a doctor is practising his or her skills of diagnosing and healing.
But it is true if we recognise that each patient is unique in their condition while also of course sharing symptoms with others in the general category. This is why we expect senior medical personnel, not just juniors, to keep up their studies in the service of their patients.
There is an inbuilt requirement of humility in practically every profession and trade as one develops from trainee, apprentice, novice, and junior, to someone who is proficient. And even then, new developments and advances challenge the seniors to update lest their practise becomes rusty.
Therefore, I would suggest we read into this challenge of Jesus a message to Pharisees to adopt a spirit of humility in their religious practices and practising. Their fault is that they see themselves as perfect. Their days of practising are over.
They see themselves as superior to others, especially those tax collectors who are damned! But a truly religious person will become more aware of their imperfection as they practise. For, if the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind, it will surely take a lifetime to perfect.
Let us then be careful in using slogans like “practise makes perfect” lest, in becoming perfect, we become proud and thus imperfect in another, deeper sense!
The way of Christ is not really the “way of perfection” but the “way of imperfection.”
In order to get things right, we must first get them wrong, we must fail. And in humbly admitting our failure we turn to God for help, and we hear him call out lovingly, so patiently: “Dear Child, practise, keep on practising.”
Kieran Cronin OFM