Breaking Open the Word
31st Sunday of Ordinary Time
November 5, 2023
Which is easier to say, “Do what I say,” or “Do what I do?” Today’s Gospel reminds us how easy it is to become hypocritical especially when it comes to things of faith. The way of Christ is the road less travelled. It is the harder path to walk but the reward is greater than anything this world can offer.
Jesus cautions the crowd and His disciples saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” Many of the leaders of the Jewish faith had lost their way. They were lured by the trappings of this world and didn’t even realize how far they had wandered from God. Evil is subtle, luring, deceitful. We must continually ask ourselves…am I doing what I expect others to do? Am I doing what God expects of me?
Today’s Gospel continues to describe the tension between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Having concluded a series of dialogues with the Pharisees and other religious leaders, Jesus now directs His words to the crowds. Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. This could have been an actual chair, like those used in later synagogues, or a symbol of the teaching authority of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees were teachers of the Mosaic Law. They were entrusted with its interpretation and were influential in determining Jewish practice. However, they did not practice the law they preached.
To begin, “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.” (23:4) The leaders have made the law burdensome and difficult to follow. And they use their own moral superiority to circumvent the law.
The Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others.” (23:5) They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. A phylactery is a small box containing Scripture verses. These are tied to the forearm and forehead while praying. Tassels refer to the fringes worn on the corners of a person’s garments; the tassels help to remind those who wear them to keep the commandments. Making them wider and more obvious would parade their piety for all to see.
The Pharisees also have been seduced by their worldly power and authority. They were enamored with their places of honor at banquets and seats of honor in synagogues. The leaders became consumed with their power and unnecessarily burdened the faithful with laws that were overbearing. What is Jesus’ response to this unfaithful behavior? Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (23:11)
Each of the three readings address leadership. The reading from Malachi and Matthew’s gospel lament how poorly served the community is by inauthentic and insincere leaders. In the second reading, Paul describes those qualities of leadership which foster the well-being of the community and promote the spread of the Good News. Paul exhibited these qualities among the Thessalonians during his stay with them and fostered this Christian leadership style in these developing communities. Paul describes his leadership as gentle, affectionate, not burdensome, as that of a nursing mother who cares for her children.
Like good leaders everywhere, Jesus demonstrated that true leadership is exercised from a posture and through a ministry of service; true leaders are enablers who help others to develop and realize their full potential in meeting life’s challenges. So, what are some of the characteristics of a Christian leader?
Christian leaders see the value in other people and work to develop future leaders. He or she demonstrates exceptional character, being trustworthy, honest, hardworking, and dependable. These leaders use their influence for the good of others, not themselves. They are skillful and competent, always learning new ways to support others. Good leaders are not afraid to see others succeed. They serve others expecting nothing in return. Christian leaders are confident in God’s plans and allow God to work through them. Imagine how our world would look today, if all our leaders were Christian leaders.
Theme in our Life Today
Jesus ends the Gospel passage today saying, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (23:12) At the center of the Christian leader is a humble heart, for a Christian leader knows that God, the source of all life, has the only true authority. We are only effective and great when we are using our God-given talents to benefit the people around us.
It is easy to hear this message and start pointing the finger at others. However, God’s living Word is addressed to me personally. St. Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the Word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” (1 Thes 2:13) The Holy Spirit is at work within me transforming me into the Christian leader than God created me to be. We all are leaders because we are called to lead others to heaven.
Let us keep our eyes on Jesus, perfect model of leadership. Jesus did not mesmerize the crowd with fine words and great speeches, He earned their attention by His integrity. He was a shepherd, brother, and friend. He forged ahead and led the way bearing much of the hardship, conflict, and suffering to spare others. The message of truth, hope and faith that Jesus shared was “caught” by others because of the life He led. May we strive to do the same.
Prepare for Sunday
In quiet reflection, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the areas in my life where I do the opposite of what I say, the areas where I expect or demand more of others than I expect of myself. Is there someone I need to be a better example for? What Christian leadership skills can I focus on improving?