2nd Week of Lent: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
One of the favorite hobbies of the western media is a game called “Gotcha!” When a politician or church leader or some other public figure gives an interview or press conference, the media folks herd around and poke at this person in the hope that he or she will make a mistake by saying something stupid, or something insulting or petty. Perhaps the only version of the Gotcha game that the media love more is the one where a public figure is caught behaving in a way that contradicts his stated principles. A “family values” politician caught in an adulterous affair. A bishop caught stealing from the collection basket. This sort of hypocrisy sells newspapers and draws viewers. An audience loves to read about or watch a leader die on the dirtied sword of his ideals. Of course, public figures could avoid this media trap by consistently living up to their ideals, or by having no ideals at all. You can't be accused of hypocrisy if you hold nothing dear! Jesus warns his disciples about the dangers of exalting themselves as the Pharisees do. He says, “. . .do and observe all things whatsoever [the Pharisees] tell you, but do not follow their example. . .The greatest among you must be your servant.”
In order to make clear what a servant in the Church looks like, Jesus describes the self-exalted religious leaders of his day. They weigh their people down with heavy burdens, yet refuse to help them carry the load. They perform good works in order to be seen not out of genuine charity. They don exaggerated religious garb; take places of honor at dinner parties, in the synagogues; and they crave adoration on the street. They allow themselves to be hailed as “Master,” placing themselves on the same level as our Father in heaven. All of these add up over time to be a shadow play, a kabuki mime—props, set pieces, scripts, choreography, all used by those who want to act the part of a righteous religious leader without actually having to be anything like a righteous religious leader. This is the road to damnation, spiritual destruction. Thus, Jesus warns the disciples to avoid playing at being humble and instead teaches them to find exaltation in being a servant.
Any seminarian, religious sister or brother, deacon, priest, or bishop will tell you that one of the most difficult temptations we face as public persons in the Church is the temptation of self-exaltation. We are charged with upholding the teachings of the Church on some of the most hotly debated issues of our day; we are vowed to do good works and we do them openly; we wear distinctive clothing and our people greet us on the streets by calling us “Sister,” “Father,” “Reverend,” even “Your Eminence.” It gets worse for those of us who teach in universities. We have “Doctor” and “Professor” added to our titles. You haven't been exalted properly until you hear yourself introduced at a party as “the Reverend Father Doctor”! Just imagine the temptations our poor Pope must endure when his titles are rattled off. Rightly or wrongly, our status is recognized and celebrated. And therein lies the danger for us and for those we serve—our status, the place we occupy, the public role we have taken on in the Church. Status is fleeting, temporary, easily lost and too easily mourned. Status is nothing.
Jesus clearly shows us the way out of this potential spiritual wreck. The Church needs leaders not actors, servants not masters. She needs living examples of holiness not self-exalted Barbie Dolls in religious drag. She needs saints, and, fortunately for us, most saints start out as sinners. The transition from sinner to saint, from religious actor to servant-leader is summed up nicely by Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord. . .Listen to the instruction of our God. . .! Wash yourselves clean!” And once cleansed by humility, we can start a life of true service. Quietly or loudly, openly or in secret, we can be slaves to a Church, a world in desperate need of being loved by those of us who lay claim to the love of Christ.
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