As the liturgical year winds down, the church is less concerned with the number of shopping days until Christmas than with sobering reflections on the end of all days. The Gospels conclude with Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples, his final testaments, which weave together words of hope and warnings about the pitfalls that loom during his absence.
Today’s Gospel launches a bitter polemic against the Pharisees that is almost a caricature of the historical Pharisees. Its purpose is less to pillory them than to warn Matthew’s community leaders about certain “pharisaical” attitudes. They preach, but do not practice; they lay burdens on people without lifting a finger to lighten them; they revel in external signs of respect and honor elegant garments, privileged places at worship and at banquets; they are full of concern for official titles. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples are to be equal brothers and sisters, with only one Father in heaven, one master, Christ, and their chosen title should be “servant,” one who seeks humiliation rather than exaltation.
When coupled with Malachi’s attack on the priests who cause many to falter and show partiality, today’s Gospel reading sounds a strong warning to religious leaders of all ages. Matthew has long been the bulwark of ecclesiastical leadership, with the Petrine promise of 16:15-18 serving as a “gospel within a gospel.” Yet, reading it through the lens of the institutional leadership dilutes its message. In this passage, taken from Jesus’ first great sermon, in which he praises the poor in spirit, the meek and humble, the mournful and merciful and those who seek peace and justice, until his final proclamation that he is hidden in the least of his brothers and sisters, Jesus heralds values directly opposed to dominating power. Instead of laying burdens on people without lifting a finger, Matthew’s Jesus will give rest to those who “labor and are burdened” (11:28), and his prime honorific title is “glutton and drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19).
In today’s Gospel Jesus summons his disciples to be a contrast society free of the pretensions of power and office. Monsignor John P. Meier, a premier Catholic New Testament scholar, comments in Antioch and Rome (1983) that in Chapter 23 “Matthew is obviously concerned about a type of nascent ‘clericalism’ that is threatening his church,” and “may see in all these tendencies the danger that a good and necessary leadership role will turn into domination, monopoly and ‘clericalism’.” More pithily, the curmudgeon and Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, once described an archbishop as “a Christian ecclesiastic of a rank superior to that attained by Christ.”
The church is not exempt from the bureaucratization that has affected all elements of society, and the higher the ecclesiastical office the more a bureaucratic model dominates. Though diocesan bishops are faced with almost insurmountable tasks, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on bishops highlighted their primary role as “spiritual guides to their flock,” proclaimers of God’s word and pastors to their priests. When speaking last month to new bishops, Pope John Paul II recalled that during the ordination ceremony when the priest puts his hands between those of the bishop it is not simply a one-way gesture of obedience, but “in reality, the gesture commits them both: priest and bishop. The young priest chooses to entrust himself to the bishop and, for his part, the bishop obliges himself to look after those hands.” This is a “primary duty for every diocesan bishop” (Sept. 29, 2002).
Along with a deep commitment to the protection of children, a welcome byproduct of the recent season of shame and sorrow could be that church leaders might feel a new confidence and freedom to pursue what is essential to their office and mission. The meetings and memos may wait; God’s good people cannot.
Paul provides a countervision to that of domination and distant leadership. His care is that of a “nursing mother” for his children, who among them shared not only the “Gospel of God, but his very own self, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” Earlier Paul wrote, “We treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you.” A nursing woman’s love and a father’s encouragement are wed in Paul’s pastoral consciousness. There is a deep lesson here for a church so characterized by patterns of exclusive male control.