Homily for the 31st Sunday of Year A

Readings:   Malachi 1:14 – 2:2,8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13; Matthew 23:1-12

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus addresses his followers on the important subject of leadership. He proposes to his disciples a new model of leadership radically different from the leadership style of the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisees were not priests, but lay people who were noted for their strict observance of the Law (The Torah). The scribes were not priests either, but professional scholars, skilled in the interpretation of the law and the prophets. Many of them were Pharisees.

As portrayed in the gospels, the Pharisees come across as pompous, hypocritical, legalistic and self-righteous. However, not all of them were like that, as I learned during my biblical renewal programme in Jerusalem in the spring of 2008. One of our teachers, a woman Rabbi, went so far as to describe Jesus as ‘a good Pharisee’! In the course of his ministry, Jesus had more interaction with Pharisees than with any other religious group in the Israel of his day. And he acknowledges their legitimate authority: ‘The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it’ (Mt 23:2-3). Some Pharisees were impressed by his teaching and invited him to eat in their houses (cf. Lk 7:36-50). A number of them became his disciples, notably Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. St Paul describes himself as ‘a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee’ (Acts 23:6) before his encounter with the Risen Christ transformed him into the greatest Christian missionary of all time. So we should be careful to avoid ‘Pharisee bashing’, or using the term, ‘Pharisee’ as a label of abuse.

At the same time, Jesus pulls no punches in pointing out the faults and failings of some leading members of the Pharisee party and he warns his disciples not to follow their example, since ‘they do not practice what they preach’ (Mt 23:2). His criticisms, however, could apply to religious leaders anywhere in the world at any time. Using practical examples from his own experience, Jesus illustrates the attitudes and kinds of behaviour he wants his disciples so avoid, while proposing to them a style of leadership in-keeping with their new identity as children of God’s kingdom. I wish to highlight three dominant features of the style of leadership Jesus is proposing.

Firstly, Jesus wants the leaders of his new community to be models of the standard of behaviour they expect from those they serve. They should be able to say, as St Paul says to the Christian community of Corinth, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1), rather than ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. As Peter reminds the elders of the Christian community, their calling is not to lord it over those in their care, but to be an example for them to follow (cf. 1 Peter 5:3). In the ordination ceremony for deacons, the bishop instructs newly ordained deacons in the following words: ‘Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose heralds you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.’

Secondly, Jesus wants leaders who are prepared to share and ease burdens, not impose them. In applying the Law of Moses to the daily lives of the people, the Pharisees had added hundreds of rules and regulations, impossible to observe. As Jesus says: ‘They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them’ (Mt 23:4). In contrast to such leaders, Jesus wants the leaders of his new community to be good shepherds familiar with ‘the smell of the sheep’ (Pope Francis); leaders acquainted with the burdens and tribulations of the people they serve; non-judgemental leaders who ‘open doors closed by despair, discover the best in others and set it free’; leaders ‘who reach out to strengthen the fearful, protect the weak, lift up the fallen, share burdens and wipe away tears’ (Michael Fitzgerald and Rene Dionne, Mafr).

Thirdly, Jesus wants leaders who are truly servants of others, not peacocks who crave attention and expect to be treated with deference by the rank-and-file members of the community. He warns his disciples against seeking honours and titles, like ‘Rabbi’, ‘Teacher’ or ‘Father’ as they are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of their heavenly father. In the course of its history, the Church, contrary to the instruction of Jesus, has attached many titles and honours to its traditional roles of leadership. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has begun to shed some of these honorific titles but it has still a long way to go if it is to recover the vision of leadership proposed by Jesus to his disciples.
The disavowal of titles and privileges does not mean the rejection of specific leadership functions in the life of the Christian community. What it does mean is that these functions are seen as roles of service without having any special status attached to them. Surely this is in line with the Jesus’ clear instruction to his disciples: ‘The greatest among you must be your servant’ (Mt 23:11). Today’s gospel challenges all of us to help create a community that reflects the standards outlined by Jesus – a community where there is no pulling of rank, no demand for special respect or privileges, no double standards, but a deep sense of equality and mutual respect, a desire to serve, to share what we have and are for the benefit all. May the celebration of this Eucharist sustain us in our efforts to respond to this challenge of Jesus!

Fr Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.

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