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Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Sermon / Homily on St. Matthew 23: 1-12

Controversy in Leadership

by Larry Broding

Scripture: St. Matthew 23: 1-12

Why is it easy to criticize leaders in the heat of controversy?

Us vs. Them. One group against another. Controversy always raises its ugly head when people separate themselves from others. While separation might be for the best of intentions, the distance that results causes a change in view point. This change can cause misunderstanding, ill feelings, and incitement to violence. When one human being turns his or her back on another, the seeds of evil are sown.

During the life of Jesus, the Pharisees were experts in the Jewish Law and they enjoyed that status. When Jesus painted a caricature of his opponents, he did not object to that status, but to the abuse of that position. God calls the Christian, Jesus insisted, to a higher level.

Popular Translation:

1 Jesus told his followers and the crowds, 2 "The Pharisees and experts in the Jewish Law are God's leaders. 3 So, do everything they tell you. But, don't follow their example because they say one thing and do another. 4 The leaders make all their rules more serious than they have to be. And they don't help people to keep the rules.

5 The leaders just want to show off to others. They wear fancy clothes to show how religious they are. 6 They love to sit at the most important places when they go to dinner or when they worship God. 7 They love for people to greet them in public and call them 'Teacher.'

8 Don't encourage anyone to call you 'Master.' Only God is your master and you are equal to everyone else in the community. 9 Don't call anyone in your community 'father." Only God in heaven is your Father. 10 Don't encourage anyone to call you 'head teacher,' since your 'head teacher' is the Messiah.

11 The most important person is the one who serves everyone. 12 God will humble everyone who makes himself a leader and will make the humble person a true leader."

Literal Translation

Jesus confounded the Pharisees with a question about the origin of the Messiah (22:41-46).

1 Then JESUS spoke to the crowds and his disciples, 2 saying, "On Moses' seat sit the scribes and the Pharisees. 3 Everything, then, they say to you, do and keep. According, however, to their example do not do. For they say (something) and do not do (it). 4 They tie up, however, packs of burden [and a double load] and they set (them) on the shoulders of men. They, however, with their finger do not want to move them. 5 All, however, their deeds they do toward (the opportunity) to be seen by men. For, they widen their phylacteries and make large the fringes (on their clothing). 6 They love, however, the first seat at dinner, and the first chairs at the synagogues, 7 and greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi.' 8 You, however, are not to be called, "Rabbi.' For, ONE is your teacher, but all (of) you are brothers. 9 And 'father' do not call (anyone) among you on earth. For, ONE is your heavenly Father. 10 Do not be called 'head teacher' because your 'head teacher' is ONE, the Christ. 11 But, the greater one among you will be your servant. 12 Who, however, gives himself important position will be humbled and who humbles himself will be given an important position."

23:2 "Moses' seat" is literally a seat in the synagogue for the rabbi. The verb "sit" is in the present tense for English use; it is in the Greek past tense.

23:3 "...example..." is literally "works." "(something)...(it)" this indefinite and pronoun were not in the Greek.

23:4 "...however..." is literally "but," a word used throughout this passage for emphasis. "...[and a double load]..." is not found in some manuscripts. "...(them)..." was added for English use; the noun "pack' acts as the direct object for the verbs "tie up" and "set"

23:5 "deed" is literally "works" the same noun that was used in 23:3. "...toward (the opportunity) to be seen..." The infinitive "to be seen" is used as a noun and the object of the preposition "toward"; hence "(the opportunity)" was added for English use.

23:8 "ONE" refers to God the Father (also see 23:9). "...all (of) you..." (of0 was added for English use; "all you" are both the subject of the clause ("all' emphasizes "you").

23:9, "...(anyone)..." added for English use.

23:11 "...greater of you..." is a comparison that can should be interpreted as the superlative "greatest."

When Matthew wrote his gospel, the Jews led by the Pharisees and the Christians lived in separate communities. These passages mark off the styles of leadership in each. The Pharisees, on the one hand, wanted to be easily seen. Let us not forget that people wear clothes and act not only for effect but for function. The Pharisees clothed themselves and acted in a way to be the focal point for the community, especially in a foreign land. Pharisees were visible for the faithful and the Roman rulers who needed a contact with their subjects. Christian leaders, on the other hand, had a low profile. (Could it be that Matthew's community wanted to be invisible so its members could avoid persecution?)

A stone chair in the synagogue defined the place of the Pharisees in the community. (See The Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, Newman and Stine, New York, NY, United Bible Society, 1988, pp. 702.) Called the "Chair of Moses," this chair was the place for the rabbi who interpreted the Law for the faithful. The seat symbolized not only the authority of the rabbi, but the lineage of that authority. The Misnah (a biblical commentary from oral sources) traced the line of authority from the rabbi to the elders (i.e., judges) to Joshua to Moses on Mt. Sinai ultimately back to Yahweh. [23:2]

Jesus honored the authority of the rabbi and the tradition behind it, both symbolized by the chair. He urged his followers (in Matthew's Jewish Christian community) to follow their rules and keep the tradition. Most likely, Jewish Christians who kept the Law as well as the Pharisees could more easily evangelize their fellow countrymen. [23:3]

While Jesus honored the authority and place of the Pharisees, he objected to a style of leadership some Pharisees pursued. Many religious leaders set themselves above the good of their communities. These leaders sought power for its own sake, desire the approval of an audience, and promote their own "cult of personality." They acted and dressed for effect. Religious practice was only a means to their own ends.

To make his point, Jesus painted a caricature of the Pharisees. They exaggerated their religious clothing. They sought the most prominent seats at social events and Sabbath worship. They loved public recognition and titles of honor. For them, religious leadership became nothing more than show. [23:5-7]

People, like these Pharisees, who place themselves first lacked moral leadership, since they lacked the strength of character to give good example. They might make brilliant jurists, but their rulings were without mercy. Jesus accused the Pharisees of oppressing the faithful because their focus was self-centered. [23:3b-4]

Not only did Jesus object to this style of leadership, he warned his followers to avoid any trappings of self-promotion in the community. In the time of Jesus, the titles 'rabbi,' 'father,' and 'head teacher' or 'leader' were titles in the Jewish community. According to John J. Pilch (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A, Collegeville, MI, Liturgical Press, 1995, pp. 158), the title of 'rabbi' did not refer to clergy per se (rabbis as clergy is an American phenomena), but to the teacher or master of a school. The title of 'father' extended beyond the one's relationship with a male parent; it could refer to a male elder or deceased ancestor. The title 'head teacher' referred to one's personal instructor. Pilch equated 'rabbi' with director, 'father' with moral guide or example, and "head teacher' with guru. If you claim any of these titles, Jesus seemed to say, you promote yourself over the needs of others.

Why did Jesus describe such a caricature of the Pharisees and such self-denial on the part of the Christian community? Obviously, Jesus did not reject leadership within the community. He acknowledged the leadership of the Pharisees as legitimate. And, he appointed apostles as leaders within the early Christian community. With leadership came titles and offices these leaders held.

Why, then? Jesus used the familiar rhetorical device of exaggerated contrast to make two points. First, style affects substance. As the evangelizing community of the Messiah, the Church and its leadership must act as the Christ did: serve others. In this way, others would be attracted to join the assembly of the saved. [23:11] Second, as the eschatological community, those gathered to await the Lord at the end of time, the Church lived in and celebrated the intimacy of God. Why would anyone want a title that promoted the self when the Lord was so near? Only God could truly be 'Master' and 'Father.' Only the Christ, as 'head teacher,' could personally interpret the will of the Father. One could be given the titles of 'rabbi,' 'father,' or 'teacher' as God's instrument, but could never claim these titles as one's own. [23:8-10]

Leadership is a gift, not a right. When leaders think they earned the office and its benefits, they see others only through selfish eyes. Abuse follows. When leaders exercises their office as a gift, however, they see others through the eyes of he who gave the gift (God) and act accordingly (serve others). True servants do not seek glory of the world. They seek to help others see the glory of heaven.

Catechism Themes: The Authorities in Civil Society (CCC 2234-2243)

Because Jesus criticized leadership style, not structure, his words can be applied to the political arena. Under the fourth commandment ("Honor your father and mother"), God calls all people to obey and honor legitimate authority.

However, legitimate authority is obliged to respect the dignity of the human person. Authority is bound to insure "...the exercise of freedom and responsibility by all." In no way should it's laws or rulings be a "...source of temptation by setting personal interest against that of the community." (CCC 2236) They should rule with an eye toward direct involvement by the populace, help fulfill the needs of everyone (especially the families, the disadvantaged, and the alien), and contribute to the common good. Ultimately, civil authority should act as God's representatives, not their own.

When it rules in this manner, citizens are bound to cooperate with and through authority for everyone's benefit. Under these circumstances, the populace are obliged " pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country." (CCC 2240) Individuals who exercise their rights responsibility and serve the community at large perform acts of charity.

However, when authority acts "...contrary to the demands of the moral order, the fundamental rights of persons, or the teaching of the Gospel..." citizens have a right to defend their rights and the rights of others. But armed resistence is not morally justified, except under the most demanding of conditions (see CCC 2243 for details).

As Jesus stated in the gospel, neither leaders or the faithful should seek self-promotion. The same can be said of civil authorities and the populace. When both cooperate for the common good, the nation they serve will live in peace and harmony.

How have you exercised your freedoms responsibly? How have your public duty and service helped the good of others?

Someone once said, "The character of the community depends upon the quality of its leadership." Some leaders seek their own good over others. Their rhetoric and example scandalize and causes separation. Those who open their hearts to God and others unite by word and deed. Consider Caiaphas against Jesus. Who do we follow? Whose leadership do we emulate? Remember, it's a matter of style that can wound or heal.

We all have moments and places where we exercise leadership and responsibility. Reflect on your leadership as a parent, worker, or volunteer this past week. What successes have you had? What failures? Thank God for your successes and pray for openness in your failures.

Copyright 1999 -2007, Larry Broding,; Used with permission

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 5th sunday after Sleebo

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