Self-Exaltation or Humility? 31st Sunday In Ordinary Time
Sermon by Emmanuel Suntheni OSB – Thirty-first Sunday In Ordinary Time – Year A
Sermon And Christian Act In The Word
Theme: Self-exaltation or Humility?! A call to be humble-servant leaders!
Point of Reflection: The readings of today teach a powerful lesson on the values that ought to be pursued within any community, particularly by teachers and leaders. The priests at the time of Malachi and many teachers at the time of Jesus pursued their own interests, such as material benefits, honorific titles and public acclaim. Paul and Jesus both taught that self-interest and self-glorification hinder God’s work in the world, and lead those who pursue these to humiliation and failure. Only those who embrace and conduct their work with integrity will receive lasting recognition and appropriate exaltation. While the readings focus on priests, teachers and leaders, these lessons certainly apply to every single Christian at any station of life, for all are prone to put their self-interest before all else.
First Reading: Malachi 1:14–2:2, 2:8–10
Psalm: Psalm 131:1–3
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7–9, 13
Gospel: Matthew 23:1–12
Sermon (Reflection): in our world today, leadership has caused harm at sometimes and at sometimes it has caused harmony in our societies and churches. The readings for this Sunday discuss the right and wrong use of one’s position of authority in the community, warning against the ever-present temptation to self-centeredness and self-interest, and their damaging effects.
In the first reading of today from the last book in First Testament called Malachi, which was written about 400 BC in the post-exilic period describes about one chief concern of the priests. The chief concern for a priest was to honour God with appropriate services and sacrifices outlined in great detail in the Law of Moses. One of those requirements was that the sacrificial animals must be without any blemish or deformity. It appears, however, that the priests offered defective animals, thus dishonouring God and possibly gaining material benefits for themselves. It is a good moment for all of us who share in a common priesthood to also reflect, on what sacrifice am I offering? What instructions am I giving?
The priests of that time were also entrusted with giving religious instructions to guide the people in matters of life according to God’s covenant. It appears that some priests ignored these duties and were leading others astray. Apparently, they were misleading people by giving only partial instructions, perhaps bending the demands of the law to suit their own purposes. To compound the problem, they led a dissolute life, giving bad examples and causing scandals. Such gross religious violations undermined the nation’s integrity and would have dire consequences. Since the priests violated the “covenant of the ancestors” and led others in the same direction, God would bring a curse on the entire nation. In the words of Malachi, the priests’ misdeeds and bending of the Law, in following their own preferences, and self-interests, placed the nation’s survival in jeopardy. Let us pray today for all those who share in ministerial priesthood not to deviate from the priesthood of Christ and that all their instructions must be Christ-centred not self-centred.
The second reading of today presents a radically different approach to mission and the use of authority, as demonstrated by St Paul. In many of his writings, the apostle points to his utter lack of self-interest while carrying out his apostolic mission. In fact, he considered preaching of the Gospel for free, without asking even as much as basic support from the community, as the mark of a true and authentic apostle (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:8-15; 2 Corinthians 11:7-11). Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul, in his typical fashion, recalled the beginnings of this community which he had personally established about a year earlier. To emphasise his commitment to the Thessalonian Christians, he recalled his utmost care, total self-sacrifice and the self-giving he had demonstrated by working with his own hands, not to place any burden for his upkeep on them. He did this in the interest of bringing them to faith, knowing that seeing his integrity they would be convinced that the message he brought was genuine. Observing his utter lack of self-interest, the Thessalonians became convinced that Paul’s preaching truly contained the good news intended for their salvation, delivered through Christ’s genuine servant. Paul won their hearts and trust by his selfless service and authentic witness.
The Gospel passage of today comes from the beginning of chapter 23 of Matthew, which contains the longest and most detailed denunciation of the Jewish leadership of the day, in the entire NT. These opening lines outline basic differences between Jesus and his contemporaries in their approach to the exercise of teaching authority. Jesus began by affirming that the leaders of the day, Scribes and Pharisees, had legitimate teaching authority – they “sit on Moses’s seat”. Indeed, they were the religious scholars of the day and taught the law of Moses with great zeal and seriousness. Yet, Jesus accused them of duplicity because their lives did not reflect what they taught. His disciples were, therefore, to “do whatever they teach”, but “do not do what they do”. But what exactly was their failure? Jesus pointed to two issues.
First, he criticized their very strict and legalistic style of teaching of the Mosaic Law, focused on observing its minute details. According to the Jewish teachers, there were six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Law, which every Jew ought to strictly observe. Indeed, such observance constituted a “heavy burden”. This exaggerated focus on the details of the Law led many ordinary Jews to discouragement, and perhaps even to abandon the practice of the Law altogether. The teachers laid these burdensome obligations on the people, but were not helping to carry them, through interpretation and teaching. By their strict and legalistic approach, the teachers of Jesus’ day discouraged rather than encouraged people to practice their religion faithfully.
Second, Jesus focused on the self-interest that the teachers and leaders pursued. They seemed to have liked public acclaim and recognition, and went out of their way to gain these. These ways included the ostentatious wearing of objects of piety, such as large phylacteries, which were small leather boxes containing passages from the Scripture tied to the forehead and to the forearm. They also sought seats of honour in public gatherings and pursued public praise through elaborate greetings and demand for titles. They expected esteem and reverence in return for their services. For Jesus, such a search for status, public recognition and esteem, was as wrong as making peoples’ lives difficult by unreasonable and burdensome demands.
Jesus also defined a set of rules intended to determine the leadership style of his disciples. They were not to accept the title “Rabbi”, which in Hebrew literally means “my great one”. They were not to be called “father”, that is a person with supreme authority within a Jewish family. They were not even to seek the title “instructor”, which refers to a teacher. Through these rules, Jesus advocated looking at one another in the community as equals under one great God, who alone is their Father with supreme authority, and they are to learn the rules for life from one master and teacher – Jesus, the Messiah.
Positively, Jesus stated that relationships between his followers ought to be based on mutual service and humility. Humility is not about taking the lowest place, but about honest acceptance of one’s place and role in the community. A person who recognises his or her true place without seeking self-exaltation, and acts accordingly, will receive the appropriate and due recognition.
Christian Act in Word of God “do not be a self-centred leader but Christ-centred leader”
We often shake our heads when we read Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his time, we frequently shake our heads in disbelief because of the numerous, detailed and demanding laws they created and imposed on the people. Yet, nowadays, we may be worse than the religious leaders of that time. Let us examine our own culturally based rules such as: appropriate dress for women and men, hair styles, make-up, rituals, uniforms, membership in sodalities and many other behaviours. These are often presented as necessary in order for a person to be a good Christian. Even worse, some treat them as indications of the seriousness of a person’s faith in God, and commitment to Christ. Equally often,
As church leaders or civil leader how do we formulate rules in our parishes and societies? A leader must make good rules for the common good of the Christians and all people of God. Some rules made by some leaders are just meant to judge other Christian communities. For example, Churches that do not allow women to wear jeans or trousers are often perceived to be holier that those which do. Or, Churches that require men to grow beards are considered as closer to the ideal Christian community, simply because the men at the time of Jesus had beards. We must carefully distinguish between the message and the values taught by Jesus which are necessary and binding for all Christians, and the customs and traditions which are merely reflections of a cultural and social environment. Jesus criticized the teachers of his day because they mistook their cultural practices for God’s own law. How do we embrace inculturation in our parishes and dioceses? Our rules and laws must be Christ-centred, not self-centred.
Many Christians judge fellow believers about trivial and unimportant matters forgetting that the core of our faith is the practice of mercy, love, compassion and humble service. All else is of secondary importance. The rule-obsessed Churches and communities deepen divisions in the Christian community and intensify conflicts, introduce power struggles gossip, judgements and divisions.
Even within our parishes there are rules and regulations which are imposed on the members and then used to judge whether one is a “good Christian” or not. These might include demands for financial contributions, wearing a particular clothing, belonging to certain groups and many others. If these external practices are given primary importance, then the community ends up being divided into different classes because of them.
The purpose of rules and regulations is to ensure that those who follow them serve God and their fellow human beings. Thus, all rules that regulate external expressions of our faith must reflect a deep and sincere intention to love and serve others in humility. Every Christian is a leader either formally or informally, hence, let us be Christ-centered not self-centered.
Action: I will imitate God to love each person I meet and to love God.
Prayer: Almighty Father, as your adopted Children and by the virtue of Baptism and Confirmation we are sent as leaders to the World, we open our hearts and minds that you implore in us the spirit of humility and servant leadership as we serve each other. The Gospel of today has told us that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted, we pray that all religious and civil leaders must be humble stewards, we ask this through Jesus Christ your son, Amen.
- Get ready the Lord is coming! First Sunday of Advent - December 2, 2023
- A Unique King with a Unique Kingdom: Christ the King - November 25, 2023
- A Call to Develop our Talents! 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - November 18, 2023