Saturday, October 29, 2011

Virtuous Leadership: The Readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

A few weeks ago at Franciscan, we had Alexandre Havard on campus to speak about virtuous leadership.  His fine talk is on You Tube here. 

Havard will be followed in about a week by Andreas Widmer, who will again speak about virtuous leadership, based on his experiences as a Swiss Guard during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II.  

These speakers on leadership came to my mind this week as I pondered the Sunday Readings, because virtuous leadership for the people of God is the unifying theme of these Scriptures.

Our First Reading comes from the prophet Malachi, who prophesied to the people of Judah during the post-exilic period, after they had returned from the Babylonian exile.  Although restored to their land, the people of Israel were forbidden to establish their hereditary king of the line of David.  They were still ruled politically by the Persian emperor or his representatives.  In this situation, the priesthood seems to have come to the fore once more, and taken a more active role in governing the people, as it had done in earlier times in Israel’s history, and as the Law of Moses had intended.

Unfortunately, the priests in post-exilic Judah were abusing their authority, as we see in this reading: 

Reading 1: Mal. 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.
And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?

The priests had three prominent duties with respect to the people: to bless, to instruct, and to judge (or “decide”) disputes.  All three of these duties can be seen reflected in this reading.  By using their position for their own interests (by showing “partiality in … decisions”) the Levitical priests were violating their covenant with God.  

The covenant with Levi is a sub-covenant of the Mosaic, had has its origins in Exodus 32:25-29, where the Levites rallied to Moses after the Golden Calf rebellion, and were rewarded with a perpetual grant of the ministerial priesthood.
The rest of the verses from this part of Malachi skipped by the Liturgy describe this covenant with Levi in greater depth, using a figure of speech in which the Levites are described as if they were but one man, their eponymous ancestor Levi himself.
God threatens judgment on these perverted priests, who have forgotten that they belong to the same great family as the common people they serve (“Gave we not all the one father?”—This could refer to God as father, or to the patriarch Jacob/Israel their common ancestor).   

There is an implied longing in this passage for good priestly leadership, that will be concerned for the welfare of God’s family rather than their own personal interests.

In the Responsorial Psalm, the psalmist leads us in professing our confidence in God, even when faced by difficulties that are mysterious or hard to understand: like, for example, what to do when God’s priests are not fulfilling their proper role: 

Responsorial Psalm Ps 131:1, 2, 3
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.
O LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.
Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother's lap,
so is my soul within me.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.
O Israel, hope in the LORD,
both now and forever.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace

Reading this psalm together with the First Reading, we can discern a message: even when the leadership of God’s people goes astray, the individual believer still finds refuge directly in God, who is a loving parent.  In this Psalm, God’s care for the worshipper is compared in an indirect way to a mother’s care for her child.  Find repose in the LORD, abandoning oneself to His providence moment by moment, is like being a weaned child resting in his mother’s lap.

The Second Reading reflects a happier period in the history of God’s people, in which, unlike the situation of Malachi’s day, the people are served by a new priesthood which mediates God’s loving care for his children, again using maternal similes:

Reading 2: 1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13
Brothers and sisters:
We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

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.

The psalmist experienced repose in God in a way analogous to a weaned child; now Paul and his companions minister to God’s people “as a nursing mother cares for her children.”  The point of the comparison is self-gift: the nursing mother, in a sense, feeds her children with her very self.  Likewise, Paul and his companions shared not only the Gospel of God, but “our very selves as well.”  This is the “virtuous leadership”, the model for those who would exercise authority in the Kingdom of God.

In the Gospel, we find Jesus dealing with a situation of religious leadership that shared parallels with the context of Malachi’s day:

Gospel: Mt 23:1-12
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to 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.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.'
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called 'Master';
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

In Jesus’ day, the Sadducees who controlled the Jerusalem priesthood were not fulfilling the priestly role to instruct the people in the ways of God, so into the vacuum came the scribes and Pharisees, who—without any Scriptural mandate to do so—nonetheless functioned as the catechists and religious educators of the Jewish common people.  Surprisingly, Jesus does not encourage his contemporaries simply to ignore them.  Jesus recognizes the need for authoritative religious instruction—he is not a religious anarchist, much less a “hippy” posturing against all authority and teaching his disciples to distrust anyone over thirty.  Nonetheless, even though the Pharisees should be respected for having taken up the responsibility of “Moses seat”—a reference to the need for authoritative interpretation of sacred law (in this case, the Mosaic law which was still in force) in each generation—their hypocritical example should not be followed.

In what follows, Jesus counsels his apostles—who are destined to be fountainheads of a new “priesthood” for the people of God—against the pride demonstrated by the Pharisees.  Jesus uses a literary device called hyperbole—striking overstatement to drive home a point.  His intention is not that we drop the use of the words “father,” “teacher,” or even “master” completely from our vocabulary.  We can see this in the Scriptures themselves, because the Apostles, although cognizant of Jesus’ instruction here, continued to call other human beings or even themselves “father.”  Here, in fact, is a list of such occurrences in the New Testament:

Luke 16:24 And he called out,  ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Rom. 4:11 He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them,

Rom. 4:16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants — not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all,

Phil. 2:22 But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.

1Cor. 4:15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

1Cor. 10:1 I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,

Gal. 1:14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

1Th. 2:11 for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you

1Tim. 5:1 Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers,

Philem. 1:10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment.

1John 2:13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father.

This last example is interesting, because the Apostle John is probably speaking not to literal fathers but to the “elders” (Gk. Presbuteroi, whence we get the English word “priest”) of the congregation to which he is writing.  It may be the first recorded instance of Christian “priests” (presbuteroi) being called “fathers.”

The principle at work here is that we follow the example of the Apostles in our interpretation of the words of Lord.  They show us that Jesus did not mean his statement above in a literal fashion, but rather figuratively. He was encouraging the Apostles to cultivate a humility, to be conscious of the fact that, finally, they were brothers to those whom they served, children of one father—a truth forgotten by Malachi’s priests.

Jesus concludes by given a general principle for the exercise of leadership in the New Covenant people of God:

The greatest among you must be your servant (or “slave”).

In time, the Catholic Church developed the tradition of requiring of her leaders that they de facto commit to lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience before assuming a leadership role in the Church.  Such a lifestyle resembles that of slaves in antiquity, who had little or no pleasures or goods to enjoy in this life.  Even this high bar of commitment required in the Catholic Church has not kept out all who were unworthy of leading the people of God—but how much more so if these commitments had not been there!  What kind of leadership would we have if the priesthood and religious life were paths to wealth, power, and sensual pleasure?

Today’s readings are particularly meaningful for the leaders of the Church.  Everyone in any leadership position, including and especially teachers of theology and Scripture, should meditate this Sunday on the virtue of humility, and the gift of self, that Christ requires of those who would be “great” in the kingdom. 


Jeff Miller said...

By the way something is wrong with your RSS feed. All it shows is the title along with a list of font definitions. This happens for every item on your feed.

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John Bergsma said...

Sorry, Jeff! I'll see what I can do!

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