by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The greatest among you must be your servant.” Matthew 23, 1-12

I admit to being perplexed by Matthew’s description of Jesus criticising the scribes and Pharisees. Today’s gospel reading opens with a verbatim account of Jesus’ savage criticism, making me wonder if Matthew has quoted him accurately. That’s because the words Matthew attributes to Jesus are loaded with judgemental language and sweeping generalisations. Are we meant to accept that there were no decent men of honesty and integrity among all the scribes and Pharisees in Israel? Not a single one?

The words Matthew puts in the mouth of Jesus are full of bitterness, seemingly directed to fire his listeners to resolve to do nothing more than respect their authority: “Do as they say, but make sure not to imitate what they do, for they are hypocrites!” Jesus’ comments seem to be all about rabble-rousing, a ploy to get the crowd on his side, and to further alienate the scholars and religious leaders he had come to regard as his enemies.

After reading this, you might end up being unsure about the message Jesus is trying to give. Is he suggesting that the burdens being put on people’s backs are legitimately imposed, even though they are heavy? Or is Jesus questioning the very authority of the Pharisees and scribes to make the kind of rules they came up with? If what they imposed on people was unjust in the first place, then they had no authority to impose it. Remember, Jesus had previously rejected their authority to rule that curing on the Sabbath was unlawful, as was mixing with sinners and eating with unwashed hands.

But analysing this gospel reading for such distinctions or even expecting Jesus’ words to be without contradictions is to miss the point altogether. Jesus was fired with anger at what he had seen some scribes and Pharisees doing, and heard them saying. He was fed up with them. His emotions were roused and he let fly, as any of us might do when we are really angry. When anger rules, niceties and neat distinctions go out the window, to be replaced by sweeping statements and the attributing of motives. If we want to understand what was going on inside Jesus, we have only to look at what happens inside us when we want to give a politician, or a public servant or our boss a piece of our mind. We get so frustrated and upset that facts get distorted and objectivity disappears. We are more interested in giving free reign to our frustrations and feelings than in being cool, calm and accurate with our words. Moreover, we get very upset when we perceive people in high places using their status and position to get special treatment or to give the impression that they are a cut above the rest of us.

Jesus’ emotions then spilled over to his disciples as he warned them not to let people put them on a pedestal. Implicit in what he said to them was his perception that the scribes and Pharisees had allowed themselves to be put on pedestals and to be given authority they had neither deserved nor earned.

We ourselves don’t have to look far back into our history to see that some Church people lapped up praise, accepted special treatment and ended up being besotted by their own importance, and abusing the power thoughtlessly vested in them.

And let’s not ignore the fact that there are some people who are quick to pass on responsibility for their own decision-making to others for no other reason that they are afraid of having to deal with the emotional turmoil that often accompanies the making of difficult decisions. Moreover, we can very easily turn prominent people into idols and heroes without realising that we are transferring to them the power in ourselves that we are afraid to use.

We’ve all heard ourselves and others say things like “the Principal or the Parish Priest or the Boss knows best.” And we’ve all seen people in positions of leadership succumb to flattery. But they are the ones who should be the first to reject the opinion that they know best. People who are genuine authorities will surely measure their effectiveness by the way in which they empower others to use their own initiative and exercise their own responsibility.

What then is the message from today’s gospel for us? (Note, incidentally, that, more than four centuries before Jesus, the prophet Malachi found reason to criticise the priests of Levi for their hypocrisy: “You have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your teaching.” – today’s first reading.) The hypocrisy that both Malachi and Jesus railed against was neither new nor surprising. We have all seen it in others, and even in ourselves, if we are honest. It is an occupational hazard for leaders, and an even greater scandal when religious leaders allow themselves to be contaminated by it. At its root is pride, which is the source of all expressions of hypocrisy, and the desire in all of us to want others to see us as better than we really are.

To live with integrity his own mission in life, Jesus had to deal with the opposition that came from the religious scholars and leaders of his time. What he saw as their eagerness to be revered, their slavish adherence to the details of law rather than to its spirit, their desire to dominate rather than serve became too much for him, to the point that he could not contain his feelings. And so, with barely restrained fierceness, he vented what he felt. That made them even more determined to settle the score.

I suggest that the real message for us is to be found in the warning Jesus gave to his disciples: “Don’t let yourselves be carried away by success, position, flattery or self-importance.” In some way or other, we are all leaders. The measure of our leadership will be the integrity of our living and the quality of our service to, and respect for, all those whom we are privileged to lead. As Br Edmund Garvey (Christian Brother and Leader of Christian Brothers in Europe) put it in a recent address: “The inspiring leader is indeed a servant leader, best recognised for being in the first place what he or she teaches… We believe people far more readily when their word is their life.” (Marino Institute of Education, October 18, 2017)