Real Authority is a form of Service

31st Sunday
30th October 2011
Tony van Vuuren

Chapter 23 of Matthew begins with a severe indictment by Jesus of the Pharisees and Scribes about their arrogance and pride. It is important to note though that Jesus is not making an attack on all the Pharisees and all spiritual leaders. We know that there were some very good Pharisees. Nicodemus, the man who came to see Jesus by night, was a Pharisee.

It was he who assisted in arranging to have Jesus buried after his death on the cross. Another highly revered Pharisee was Gamaliel, who urged caution in acting against the disciples of Jesus preaching the gospel. “If they are frauds, their movement will collapse”, he said, “but if it is of God, there is nothing that can be done to stop them.”

The Gospel passage reflects some of the conflicts which arose between the early Christians, especially those who were Jews themselves, and for whom Matthew was writing his Gospel. What Jesus is attacking is not specific people so much as a certain arrogant and hypocritical way of thinking and acting, of which some people in his time were guilty. And these attitudes could be found just as easily within the early Christian community that followed and every period since then. We should listen to Jesus’ words, then, directed not so much to abstract “Pharisees and Scribes” but to ourselves today.

Jesus first of all emphasises that as people in authority and experts on the subject of Jewish law, the Scribes and Pharisees should be listened to with respect and they should be obeyed when they teach.
But in their behaviour, their example should not be followed.
– they don’t practise what they preach, and – they do what they do to attract the admiration of others. -they have no hesitation in drawing up rules which are difficult for people to carry out but they do absolutely nothing to help in their implementation.

These are the double standards, where those in authority set the rules which they themselves do not keep:

What follows is the “Do as I say, not as I do” syndrome or “You will do it because I tell you to do it.”
Is that in itself sufficient reason to demand respect?

Real authority is not the exercise of power but of enabling people to do and be what they are called to do and be; it is a matter not of overpowering but of empowering.
In fact, the words of Jesus are a warning to all people in authority. He was attacking the Pharisees but his words can be applied to many positions in our own society. Executives, managers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, civil servants, teachers, parents can all be included here.

In so far as they have genuine authority, they should be listened to – the doctor about things medical, the lawyer about things legal, the clergy about things spiritual, the parent about family matters…
It is easy to read today’s Gospel and start pointing fingers at others, but it is important that we recognize how it applies in our own lives. The Gospel is always addressed to ME; to each one of us here. And today we need to hear what Jesus is saying to us about humility, righteousness, arrogance and pride. Of course, we can point a criticising finger at all the officials we know, political, religious or otherwise, who take advantage of their position, but are we any different? How often do we stand on ceremony? How touchy are we about how people treat us, especially if one has some title or responsibility?

Real authority is a form of service, not a way of control or domination or a claim to special privileges. As Jesus says, ultimately we are all brothers and sisters; the greatest among us is the one who best serves the needs of those around them rather than the one who has the most impressive titles.

When we put ourselves on a pedestal of authority, we are in danger of being knocked down. Following the advice of Jesus, we realise that real greatness is in offering ourselves in service to one another, only then are we likely to meet support, understanding and cooperation in bringing people closer to God.

We are all given different responsibilities in our community and some of these responsibilities are more demanding or require special qualifications or talent. But, the greater the responsibility towards a greater number of people, the greater is the demand to serve the needs of one’s community. Today’s Gospel, addressed to all of us, calls for integrity and honesty, where there is no pulling of rank, no demand for respect or privilege, no double standards, but a deep sense of equality and mutual respect, a desire to serve, to share what we have and who we are for the benefit of all. Sometimes even without thanks!

Granted some of us are called to leadership roles and have official or unofficial titles; but Jesus solemnly reminds us to remember that at the very core of our being, as baptized members of the church, we are brothers and sisters; we are called to serve; no matter what honorific titles we carry in the community. We all need to be reminded that we are as human and as frail as those scribes and Pharisees.

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