Humility, Compassion and Service

11-05-2017Pastoral ReflectionsFather Brian Manning

Anyone observing governmental and societal leaders would conclude that the best leaders are models of character. Besides speaking and acting well, they actually live what they talk. We certainly learn in the Gospels that Jesus is truly a great leader. Indeed, he also asks his disciples to lead as he did, by serving.

Our Old Testament this weekend comes from the very short Book of Malachi, whose name means "my messenger." This truly unknown messenger of the Lord had reason to keep a low profile. His message was quite distressing in a very troubled time, the time when the resettlement of Israel after the exile took place. Everything was in confusion and doubt.

In this newly resettled Israel, a new Temple had been built, but things were dismal as the people needed to reform. Malachi laid the fault squarely at the feet of both the priests and people. Today's first reading focuses on the worship of people who have no heart for it. Malachi warns of the corrosive effect of this empty worship that distances the people from God and from one another. Indeed a most dangerous situation.

In today's Gospel, notice how Jesus speaks the same language as Malachi. He excoriates the behavior of the teachers, even as he upholds their teachings. The problem is not found in the Law of Moses, says Jesus, but in those who are called to uphold it. Jesus plainly urges the faithful to follow the honorable teachings but not the teachers.

Jesus lists the ways in which the holiest images, words, and behaviors are stood on their head. The leaders of the people show all this. Phylacteries that contain the written words of faith were prescribed to be near to hand and mind to recall forever Israel's covenant with the Lord. But now in Jesus' time, the place and meaning of these are changed to call attention to the bearer, not to the message. The leaders relish the title rabbi - "my great one," "my master" - but nothing is done by any of them to be worthy of this title. The leaders lay heavy burdens on the followers, who cannot carry these burdens.

Jesus makes very clear to us that this must not be the leadership style of his followers. His words aim at our inner disposition. He urges avoidance of grand titles and inflated pomp and circumstance. He again informs us that we have one Father and all of us are the children of that Father. Jesus is not suggesting that false pious humility that we often see and experience "by the pious," but he does advocate the attitude of minister, comforter, companion no matter what one's title or level of responsibility.

We can tell in today's letter of Paul that he got the message of Jesus, which he passed on to his beloved Thessalonians. Paul brought the message of the risen Lord to his time and place. Note he was not the sole carrier of religious news. Saint Paul is in service to the Word of the Lord, which is at work in the community at Thessalonica. As leader and teacher in that small community of converts, Paul presents himself as one who is among them as a mother with nursing children. This image, as well as those Jesus spoke of and demonstrated, are transparent images of care and presence. No one is lording it over anyone. We are to remind ourselves though we may be religious and observant that we are called to be far from the spirit of judgment and "being better" and close as possible to a spirit of humidly, compassion and service.