20th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday (Year II)
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.
In this confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, the new Moses came to reclaim his chair for the Father alone. The “sheep without a shepherd” had been led down dark alleys and into a pit by blind guides. Until the coming of the Good Shepherd, the impoverished flock had little choice but to follow leaders whose words and actions often did not match.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.
These words of criticism laid bare what many may have perceived but simply accepted as c’est la vie. Minute rules and regulations, purification rituals, food laws, and Sabbath do’s and don’ts made life excessively constrained. The heart of religion—love of God and neighbor—was often choked by the fear of transgressing lesser rules that resulted in breaking the golden one. The nervous legalist easily missed the forest for the trees.
All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
These words were reminiscent of the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Christ’s example of servant leadership, bent to the ground with a towel around his waist, spoke more powerfully than words. “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13-14).
These final remarks also addressed ministerial concerns in the early church, as the first Christians sought to distance themselves from the synagogue culture from which they emerged. The Catholic Study Bible offers the following insight (footnote to Matthew 23:1-39):
“While the tradition of a deep opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees is well founded, this speech reflects an opposition that goes beyond that of Jesus’ ministry and must be seen as expressing the bitter conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and the church of Matthew at the time when the gospel was composed… The evangelist discerns in his church many of the same faults that he finds in its opponents and warns his fellow Christians to look to their own conduct and attitudes.”
Christians and Jews living side by side in a ruined Jerusalem after A.D. 70 needed ideals and ways of governing that were distinct and true to their own founders. The Mosaic teaching authority (“chair of Moses”) evolved into the institution of rabbis, in which it seems that the addresses of “father” and “master” were also used. New cultures are not born in a vacuum; the Jewish Christians who were brought up under rabbinic authority adapted many of the practices of their brethren.
The tendency of leaders to lord it over others is almost a sociological law. Baptism and faith in Christ did not automatically eradicate that tendency. The excesses of the scribes and Pharisees were a mirror and warning to the young church.
What is to be made of the established title of “father” in the Churches of East and West? In the desert tradition, “abba” and “amma” (father and mother) were titles given to the wise and holy men and women who renounced the world to seek God alone. “Abbot” and “abbess” were variants of the same titles used in Benedictine monasteries. These titles ultimately come from the family. Where there is harmony in a family, “father” and “mother” denote relationships of respect and love. St. Paul expressed his love for the Church in such terms: “Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (I Corinthians 4:15). The essence of leadership is not found in titles, but in humility and charity.