Just Do Your Job

Homily for November 5, 2017 (31st Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; Psalm 131; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13; Mathew 23:1-12

You’ve probably never heard of Stanislav Petrov.  However, you may want to say a prayer for him and be grateful for his intelligence, presence of mind and courage, for he may have saved the world from a nuclear war.

Colonel Petrov, who died earlier this year, was in charge of a Soviet computer and missile system in the early hours of a morning in September 1983 when the system sent an alert that the USA had launched five Minuteman missiles aimed at the USSR.  Each missile contained multiple nuclear warheads that could wipe out entire cities.  Petrov had just a few minutes to decide whether to launch a counterattack.  He checked with his satellite operators, and they reported no missiles.  He told his superiors it was a false alarm, but he also knew that there was a 50/50 chance he could be wrong. He went with his gut as well as his brain.

There were in fact no Minuteman missiles heading toward the Soviet Union.  A Soviet satellite had misread the sun’s reflections on some clouds.  Years later, Col. Petrov was interviewed about his decision that fateful day.  “We are wiser than computers,” he remarked and added, “We created them.”  He also refused to be considered a hero, saying, “I just did my job.”

“Just do your job.”  It seems so simple.  Yet every day it seems that we are confronted with people who cannot or will not heed those four simple words.   Some are distracted, others may be incompetent, and still others abuse the power of their offices.  It makes no difference if you’re a political operative, a Hollywood mogul, a public official or a religious figure.

However, our scripture readings today call us to be especially attentive to the roles of those who have been entrusted with roles of leadership in the community of faith.  Through the prophet Malachi, God condemns those priests who “turned aside from the way and have caused many to falter” by their poor instruction.  Jesus tells the crowds to listen to the words of the scribes and Pharisees “who have taken their seat on the chair of Moses” but to reject the hypocrisy, lack of compassion, pride, ostentation and claiming of privileges that have corrupted their ministry.

Jesus encourages them and us to turn our focus from titles and roles to the essential nature of ministry, service:  “The greatest among you must be your servant.”  St. Paul in our second reading recounts how he and his coworkers Silvanus and Timothy strove to serve the church, sharing not only the gospel but their very selves, “working night and day” at their own trades to keep the community from the burden of supporting them. 

Last week remembered the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a split in Western Christianity that was in no small part the result of priests, bishops and even popes who forgot or ignored the messages of our Lord, Malachi and Paul.  How many divisions in the church today are the result of that same spiritual and historical amnesia and arrogance, maladies that can affect any of us regardless of our particular vocations?  A parent or spouse who lacks compassion or a generous spirit is no more virtuous than a religious with similar shortcomings. A catechist, secretary, parish council president, trustee or choir director swelled with pride can do just as much damage as a priest afflicted with the same sin.  We’re all called to remember those four words: “Just do your job.”    Jesus distilled them into two:  love and serve.” +