Matthew 23: 1-12
After describing four controversies with various religious leaders about paying taxes to Caesar, the nature of resurrection, the greatest commandment, and the Messiah (22:15-46), Matthew places Jesus’ strong judgments against these authorities. The growing schism with the religious authorities of his own Jewish community will eventually result in Jesus’ arrest and execution under the oppressive power of the Roman government.
In the first judgment, contained in today’s passage, Jesus indicts the Pharisees who speak with the authority of Moses. Jesus tells the people and his own disciples to do whatever they teach, but they should not follow their example. Because of their authority, they can lay heavy burdens on people’s shoulders, but do not lift a finger to help carry them. They do good works in order to be seen. They love all the marks of honor, and love to be called teacher.
Then Jesus gives instructions to his own disciples: do not be called teacher because you have but one teacher; do not call anyone father because you have but one master, Christ. “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The unredeemed situation which Jesus addresses in this gospel passage is the human tendency to live in the prideful illusion of autonomy. (It is not a matter of removing titles from the dictionary.) When we are in that illusion about our most fundamental truth, we forget that all that we are and all that we do is ultimately a gift from God. We then seek honors for ourselves rather than living the truth that all glory belongs to God. Today’s gospel reminds us that holding a position of power in religion appears to be particularly vulnerable to self-exaltation and abuse.
The tendency to take advantage of one’s position of power by no means is limited to people in religion. Power in general has a tendency to corrupt. Examples of political corruption are rampant. In our culture, however, scientists, not religious leaders, hold positions with the most powerful teaching authority. I think of the late Carl Sagan who, in his TV Cosmos series, proclaimed that “the Cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.”
This famous teacher, I’m sure, was quite aware of the limits of astronomy and the scientific method. He was aware that his philosophical assertion of secularism was not a conclusion of any scientific experiment. You have the same abuse of power when a scientist in a position of teaching authority proclaims that evolution or the “big bang” proves there is no need of the Creator.
We may use titles — with lower case, as it were — only with the realization of the truth that we hold positions of power as a gift and in humble dependence upon God. If we had only Jesus’ warning about the abuse of power, today’s gospel passage would hardly be good news. The good news comes from our belief that the Risen Lord is present in the Eucharistic liturgy to share his Spirit with us. From the Spirit of truth we hope to receive the gift of using power not for ourselves, but in humble service to others.
Whatever our title — father, mother, bishop, priest, president, pastor, professor, Christian — each one connects us to God, the source of our being and the source of our power. All gratitude and service belong to us. All honor and glory belong to God.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.