It was only a few months ago that we reflected on religious leadership (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time). Today’s readings place this theme before us again. The frequency with which the Bible considers religious leadership points out both its importance and its challenge. Because of human weakness, the same abuses of power and authority creep into the exercise of religious leadership as are found in forms of societal or political leadership. The readings speak to these abuses.
The memory of the Babylonian exile should have seared the consciousness of the people of Malachi’s day. Initially, they had interpreted that catastrophe as divine punishment for infidelity. However, they slipped right back into religious laxity, and the prophet holds the priests largely responsible. Today’s reading does not focus on their cultic duties, but on their role as teachers, for the priests interpreted the Law for the people (Dt 17:8-11; a better translation of the Hebrew word tôra is “instruction.”) Their failure actually “caused many to falter.”
Though leaders may be blatantly irresponsible, their authority is not for that reason illegitimate. The tragedy is that legitimate authority can sometimes be untrustworthy. This is the situation depicted in the Gospel account. Those who took “their seat on the chair of Moses” were lawful leaders. Jesus recognized this and admonished his followers to do so as well: “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”
Perhaps these readings are meant more for leaders than for the average believer. They underscore the fact that religious leadership is a sacred responsibility of service to others, not a reward for personal achievement. Jesus tells us that religious leaders should be humble servants of others. Paul is a prime example of this. He treated those in his charge “as a nursing mother cares for her children.” Leaders would do well to reflect today on his message to the Thessalonians.
Though they do not offer us a clear path to follow, today’s readings are meant for all of us. We certainly can recognize inappropriate behavior in our leaders, but according to which guidelines do we determine illegitimate teaching? Do we simply accept whatever leaders say, as seems to be indicated in the Gospel? Or does their sinfulness cause us, going to the other extreme, to reject their teaching, as is found in the first reading? Today all of us, not merely our leaders, are responsible for being informed about our faith. Parishes offer many opportunities for learning, and good reading is available to all. This does not exonerate religious leaders from their responsibilities. Rather, it demonstrates that believers are mature members of the church and deserve leaders who recognize and foster them.