Walking the Talk

What should be done when leaders do not practice what they preach? In today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the crowds and his disciples, giving them directives for how to respond when they are faced with leaders who do not “walk the talk.” He first urges respect for the office, “the chair of Moses,” and advises that they sincerely take to heart what truthful teachers say. But when leaders act ostentatiously and revel in honor and privilege, Jesus tells his hearers not to imitate them. He emphasizes that all are brothers and sisters, with only one who is deserving of special titles and honor: God. He undercuts the conventional pyramidal models of authority and obedience by asserting that in a community of equal disciples of brothers and sisters there is no one who occupies the place of sole authoritative teacher, father or master.

Unlike the teaching found in Col 3:18–4:1 and Eph 5:21–6:9, where the traditional household codes—in which husbands, fathers and masters are set over wives, children and slaves—are reinforced with Christian motivation, Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel would undo such a structure. It is not a simple reversal that Jesus proclaims, by which the one at the bottom of the pyramid takes the place of the one at the top, but rather a circular structure, in which all are brothers and sisters, equal in discipleship.

To create such a community, whoever has enjoyed exalted positions of privilege would need to humbly relinquish such status markers, and those who have been humiliated through structural injustice would be lifted up to their rightful, equal place at the table.

In such a community, greatness is evident through service to the whole. In the second reading, Paul gives us an image of how that can be. He tells the Thessalonians that he has been like a nursing mother with them, putting the care and feeding of those who have been entrusted to his care uppermost in his concerns.

Moreover, just as a nursing mother surrenders her very self to her child, so Paul gives his very self in proclaiming the Gospel—an exemplary leader who “walks the talk.” In addition, he works so as not to be a burden to any of them.

The contrast is great between this approach and that of the leaders who tie up heavy burdens and lay them on other peoples’ shoulders. In another part of the Gospel, Jesus speaks about the lightness of his burden for those who will take his teaching upon their shoulders. He is intent on lifting heavy burdens from those who are weighed down and taking them upon himself instead (Mt 11:28-30). And like Paul, Jesus also speaks of his leadership as being like that of a mother bird who wants to keep her brood safely enfolded in her wings (Mt 23:37).

In Jesus’ community of disciples, there is no room for ostentatious displays of piety. Devout Jews wear phylacteries (leather boxes containing the parchment texts of Ex 13:1-16; Dt 6:4-9 and 11:13-22, which are strapped to the forehead and arm during morning prayer) as a reminder to observe all of God’s commands (see Nm 15:38-39; Dt 22:12). They are not meant to impress others, but are tangible reminders to internalize and act on the Commandments.

The readings for the feast of All Saints reinforce the message that all are equally beloved as children of God and that this love and belonging in the family of God is already manifest, not something that must be awaited (1 Jn 3:1-3). Likewise, the Gospel Beatitudes affirm the ways in which saintliness is evident here and now, ways in which those who walk the talk already experience the happiness that will be brought to completion at the end time.

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