When Christian Leadership Falls Short of Jesus' Ideal

Biblical Reflection for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time A

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

TORONTO, OCT. 25, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Today’s text from Matthew 23:1-12 comes from a very polemical chapter of the first Gospel. We learn once again of the bitter conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and Matthew’s ecclesial community. Our episode contains a clear denunciation by Jesus of the scribes and the Pharisees and contains material that is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. 

In the first section of Chapter 23, the focus is on religious teachers and their responsibility for ordinary people. Jesus criticizes his religious opponents (many of whom were Pharisees). The reference to the Pharisees «sitting on the seat of Moses» (Verse 2) may simply be a metaphor for Mosaic teaching authority or it may refer to an actual chair on which the teacher sat. Studies have confirmed that there was a seat so designated in synagogues of a later period than that of today’s gospel.

In the course of time Jesus words, related in Matthew’s Gospel, were understood as directed primarily at the Pharisaic teachers who, after the disastrous war with Rome (66-73 A.D.) sought to reconstruct Jewish ethnic identity by extending and consolidating their influence in the synagogues of Palestine and the diaspora. 

The heart of the conflict

What lies at the heart of the conflict? Jewish-Christian missionaries who proclaimed a crucified and resurrected Messiah found in these Pharisaic teachers their most determined adversaries and rivals, and consequently reapplied Jesus’ saying to this new situation. There is also another level of interpretation: The sayings are applied to Christian teachers who are warned not to be like the very teachers Jesus condemned.

Matthew’s real concern is to address the problem of Christian leadership that has fallen short of the ideal required by Jesus. Verses 6-12 are not to be understood as simply an aside in a chapter condemning the Pharisees but as a passage expressing the central purpose of Jesus’ message. We must read Matthew 23 with theological lenses, and not only as a moral exhortation or a condemnation of something in the past.

Critique of the Pharisaic teachers

The Pharisees had special responsibilities for leading Israel at the dawn of the Messianic age but they failed in their tasks to do so. Let us consider carefully four criticisms made of the Pharisaic teachers in today’s Gospel. The first criticism involves their inability to practice what they preach (Verse 3). Such a criticism applies to teachers of any religion. They must walk their talk in a clear, convincing way.

To those entrusted with the Good News of Jesus Christ, they must teach whatever Jesus commanded (28:19) and embody his teaching in their very lives. We are all vulnerable to this critique, since not one of us is fully capable of fully exemplifying the ideal to which we aspire and which we strive to proclaim with our lives.

The second teaching, found in Verse 4, is a bit difficult to understand, especially in view of Verse 3: «Do whatever they teach you and follow it.» I would like to suggest that Matthew refers here to the fact that the Pharisees stressed consistency in observance. It was not enough to keep the Sabbath in a general way; it was necessary to define carefully which weekday activities constituted work and were therefore prohibited on the Sabbath. 

Although Jesus observed the Sabbath, he insisted that his ministry to the sick took precedence over the Sabbath rulings of the legalists. He offered an easier yoke and lighter burden to his disciples and hearers (11:28-30). Matthew may have directed this criticism to Christian teachers who were urging followers of Jesus to observe the Sabbath and the other ritual laws in accordance with the Pharisaic interpretation.


The third critique in Verse 5 requires little interpretation. It speaks for itself. The hypocrisy of a piety that seeks the praise of other people rather than the glorification of God has already been unambiguously denounced in the Sermon on the Mount (6:1-6; 16-18). The widening of phylacteries and the lengthening of tassels were for the purpose of making these evidences of piety more noticeable.

Honorific titles

There is a stern criticism over titles of honor (7-11). Only after 70 A.D. did the practice develop of using «rabbi» as a technical term to designate those of the Pharisaic tradition who had been trained as teachers and set apart for this particular leadership role in the community. Without a doubt the role is indispensable but it must not be used as an excuse for a self-aggrandizement that harms the unit of the community. The prohibition of these titles to the disciples suggests that their use was present in Matthew’s church. Jesus forbids not only the titles but also the spirit of superiority and pride that is shown by their acceptance. Only one person is to be recognized and honored with the title; the rest are brothers and sisters bound together by mutual affection and respect.

The title «father»

Verse 9 of today’s Gospel uses the active voice of the verb: «And call no one your father on earth.» This is not referring to one’s biological father but to a religious authority. Some rabbinic leaders were addressed as «ab,» «father.» There is nothing wrong with addressing clergy with titles such as «reverend,» «father,» «excellency,» «bishop,» eminence,» etc. Such titles, far from setting people apart from those in authority or leadership, exist to foster deep, authentic relationships in the community of the Church. For those on the receiving end of such honorific titles, the responsibility to work diligently at becoming humble servants and break down barriers that exist among us is only intensified!

The greatest one will be servant

The fourth criticism deals with true greatness in the community of the disciples who have become Church. In Verses 11-12, Matthew outlines the qualities of the greatest person in the community, the one who becomes servant to all. This ideal of the Church as a community of equals was later embraced by St. Paul as he moved among the Christian communities of the early Church. In his pastoral letters to the various communities, Paul of Tarsus refers to leadership functions without stressing the persons who were called to fulfill those functions. Paul begs his hearers to abandon selfish ambition and humbly treat others as superior (Philippians 2:3; Romans 12:3, 16).

Sharing the Gospel and our very selves

As I reflect on today’s second reading from I Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13, I cannot help but recall with affection and gratitude the figure of Blessed John XXIII. St. Paul’s moving words describe the life and ministry of Angelo Roncalli who would become John XXIII: «We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.»

In light of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, and today’s Gospel that speaks of authentic religious leadership, I invite you to read an excerpt of Blessed John XXIII’s opening address at the Second Vatican Council, given at St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 11, 1962. 

A magisterium that is predominantly pastoral

«In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

«We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, a
s though the end of the world were at hand.

«… The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in regard to doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will.

«Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but also to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries. The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.

«… The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.»

— — —

View a tribute to Blessed John XXIII:

[The readings for this Sunday’s Mass are: Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; Psalm 131:1, 2, 3; I Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12]

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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He can be reached at: rosica@saltandlighttv.org.

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