First Reading: Mal 1:14b-2:2b. 8-10; Psalm: 131. R. v.; Second Reading: 1Thes 2:7-9.13; Gospel: Mt 23:1-12.
LIVING RIGHT WHEN LEADERS FAIL
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
Leadership positions superficially look very attractive. Which is why to the lure of many, certain people do all it takes to get there. But being a leader is more than the superficial glamour, popularity and prestige that goes with it. To be a leader is an interesting but a very dicey position. It saddles on us the responsibility to be guided in our ways so as to become an example to the led. The dicey side of leadership is that the shortcomings of the leader can have a huge detrimental effect on the led. This is the danger that Jesus sets out to address in our gospel reading of today.
In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees were experts in the Jewish law; a position they enjoyed ostentatiously. Jesus never objected to their status but to the abuse of their leadership style prevalent at that time. There was a stone chair conspicuously positioned in the synagogue wherefrom the rabbis (teachers of the law) instructed the people on the command of the law. Jesus called it by its name – “The Seat of Moses.” Whenever a rabbi mounts this seat, he is exercising the authority of Moses, the first custodian of the law through whom the written and oral law originated from and got to them.
Jesus acknowledged this position of authority enjoyed by the Pharisees. However, he vetoed against the disharmony of their lifestyle to what they taught. For “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” (Mt 23:4). They demand certain religious duties from the people but are found wanting in keeping them. It is important to note that Jesus was referring to certain groups of Pharisees and not all Pharisees. They were righteous ones among them. Like Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night with a heart thirsting for truth (Jn 3:1-21). And Gamaliel who defended the teachings of the apostles (Acts 5:34-39).
In the first reading of today, the prophet Malachi was also unreticent in his prophetic utterances against the clergymen (the Levitical priesthood) of his time. They should have been leading the people by word and example but failed in this regard. They were corrupt and partial in their dealings and failed to instruct the people properly in the ways of the Lord. In his prophetic oracle, the prophet Malachi denounced the priests: “If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you. You have turned from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; and you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal 2:2b.8)
Contextualising these passages of the scriptures, we would all agree that we are culpable of this double-faced life. No time is timelier than now to reflect on this double standard life that cuts across both civil and ecclesiastic authorities. It is difficult to find a hero as a model of example but very easy to get irreparably disillusioned when our hero shockingly falls flat below our expectations. So, it is rather safe to have God as our hero and our perfect model of example than to model our lives after man.
True leadership is not in the exercise of power or authority but creating an enabling clime to help the people attune themselves to do what they ought to do or are called to do. To create this enabling clime, every true leader must be exemplary in word and example. Jesus warned; “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Mt 18:6). Apparently, no scriptural passage puts any leader on edge than this very passage. Especially in our time and age where religious leaders are found wanting in matters of faith and morals.
It is no longer news of the several scandals that rock the Catholic Church today. Many Christian faithful have been spiritually and emotionally wounded and even disenchanted by the shortcomings of religious men and women whom they looked up to. We don’t have to shy away from this fact but face it if we wished to reap the fruits of Christ’s challenge in the gospel of today. As priests, many of us mount the pulpit to proclaim the gospel of Christ, setting standards that we ourselves do not make effort to keep. The same priest, who preaches Christian love, could be a hater and a racist. The same priest, who preaches on generosity and detachment, could be ungenerous and grasping. The same priest, who preaches on chastity, could be guilty of sexual affair in whatever form or sexual abuse in practice.
But we must not let our faith be dampened by this two-faced life. Christ remains our perfect model. And he reminds us today that those we look up to, will fail us; but that we should not be discouraged at this but keep up the faith regardless. There are also many religious men and women who make effort to live by example. Though they are not perfect; but their efforts could be a source of encouragement. Saints are not those incapable of sinning but those who make effort to grow in holiness.
Civil authorities are definitely not absolved from the sin of double standard. There are still many political leaders who seize power through thuggery, vote buying, manipulation of results and other forms of electoral malpractices. These same leaders, who lack moral leadership and strength of character, will with all temerity demand citizens to be honest and morally correct in observing their civic duties. The police and other defence forces responsible for the prevention of crime and maintenance of law and order, are not all exempted from crime and lawlessness in the land. Politicians, who ought to serve the people, manipulate and use the people as a means to an end. When civil authorities fall short of the moral standard required of them; it gives the citizens the leeway to justify their own crimes.
But this is precisely what Jesus warns against. We must not justify our acts contingent on the moral deficiencies of our leaders. We have the moral character to make morally informed choices regardless of the moral decay in the land. The same is applicable in our families. Parents could be lacking in their moral responsibilities as parents. But we are not morally deficient and incapable of differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. We should learn whatever is good and practice whatever is right.
The tremendous impact of St Paul’s missionary work was dependent on his admirable life. St Paul’s style of ministry among the Thessalonians and wherever he worked was to set the pace for the people to follow. Paul was not a burden to anyone but preached the gospel honourably by example and hard work just like a nursing mother caring for her child. Just like St Paul, every leader can record a huge success with the interest of the people at heart and by living a life worthy of emulation. As St Francis of Assisi would say; “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, we ask for your strength and courage to practice what you teach us in the scriptures and to persevere in them till the end. Amen.