Monday, October 27, 2014

Jesus on the Essence of Leadership and Power. A Homily from Matthew 23:1-23.
Homily for 
31st Sunday 
Ordinary Time, A
November 2, 2014
from an original post
October 30 2011, 

The conflict between Jesus and the religious/political leaders is now reaching its climax. In today's Lectionary Gospel reading Jesus opens his fifth large segment of teaching with a warning toward those would-be religious leaders who:
"do not follow their example...""they preach but they do not practice...""All their works are performed to be seen...""They love places of honor..."
In fact, St. Luke offers some of this same teaching from Jesus, only he changes the warning into a woe:
"Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces." (Lk. 11:43)
First, it must be said that by and large the Pharisees have gotten a bad reputation from Christians. Most were not evil. Most were zealous for the law, zealous toward piety. Still, they were, as N.T. Wright reminds us that the Pharisees were an:
"...unofficial but powerful Jewish pressure group... Largely lay-led...[and] their aim was to purify Israel through intensified observance of the Jewish law (Torah), developing their own traditions about the precise meaning and application of scripture, their own patterns of prayer and other devotion, and their own calculations of national hope.”

Therefore, often their zeal as a pressure group led them to burden the ordinary people and so to miss the forest for the trees. 

We have unpacked this reality for the past month in our dissection of this running battle between Jesus and the nation's leaders, but today we approach the heart of the matter, and one reason why Jesus pushed so hard against them through what we are calling the parables of provocation. 

Besides their differing visions for the future of the nation, Jesus' argument against them also came because of their treatment of sinners. Remember, Jesus offers the Kingdom to the broken and left-out, not just the good and perfect:
"When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' But when he heard this, he said, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.'" (Mt. 9:11-13)
Or, we can hear Jesus words as an echoes from his chosen ministry motif in Isaiah 55:
"...everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Is. 55:1)
Finally, we can recall his primary response to the Pharisaical project, that of adding burdens on top of the Torah:
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mt. 11:28-30)
At the heart of the issue for Jesus is the question of leadership, and the leader's relationship and responsibility with those who follow. This idea offers us three questions that will break open our text for today's homily: 

For Jesus, the backbone of leadership is this statement from the text: "you are all brothers." 

By this he means to say that we all of us related; we are all part of the whole humanity; we are all of us in the same boat spiritually. That is, we are all of us in great need. 

The wisest and the most capable are tied to the foolish and the most broken. This truth is often difficult for the strong and the gifted to find meaningful. Surely, the weak and the cracked-up could be otherwise if they would only just try; if they would only apply themselves. This attitude misses the essence of leadership. 

Leadership is incarnational. Leadership is joining those being led. Leadership is earthing (Arbuckle) yourself beside the weakest and the most underserving, recognizing, in being beside them, your own humanity, your own struggles within. Leadership is not visioning the future from above, it is picturing the imminent from below. It is seeing through the trappings of success to find the human beings under your influence. 

Said differently,
Leadership is for the other, not for yourself.

The genuine leader is the one who sacrifices his position and prestige for the one most in need. Or, putting it in a JesusWay dialect: Leadership seeks the lost sheep, the wayward son and the least of these. 

In Jesus approach, therefore, leaders: 
"practice what they preach, their works are done in quiet, behind the scenes and not for show, and they eschew places of honor"
Real leaders teach by the practice of life. If they are forced to use words they do so only to explain what they are already doing each day in their practice. 

Real leaders do not offer authoritarian and dogmatic edicts, expecting their words to be carried out by decree. No, they are found with their sleeves rolled up and sweat on their faces. 

Real leaders deflect honor and adoration because they realize, first, that all glory is the LORD's, and second, that all success is the team's and not their own. 

Or, think about leadership in this way: title is not about honor, it is about function and calling. In today's text Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: 
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. 
To have a title is to handle a dangerous thing. It is to be set apart; it is to be separated from the those you lead. Therefore,  the leader must constantly remind herself that title only describes function not character, and that the only excuse one has for the title is calling not innate power. 

To put it personally, my only excuse for standing before you and proclaiming the Word, of taking the title of pastor, is not that I am smarter than you are, or more holy. No, the only excuse I have is that I have been called to function as your pastor, a calling I often find terrifying in its responsibility. 

Finally, then, according to today's text, what is the true position of power? 
"The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
The attitude is service and the position is humility. First, let us allow Jesus to speak for himself in this regard: 
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mk. 10:35-45)
Power, teaches Jesus, comes not from being served, but self-sacrificial service. 

Or, think of what St. Paul says to his flock at Philippi: 
Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)

And, of course, this is how Jesus practiced leadership, from the ground up. He identifies with those he would lead, he certainly practices what he preaches, and he does so from a position on his knees (Jn.13:3) and from a cross. This is the position of leadership: servanthood and humility. Truly, this is his pattern for us. Here is our model. Let us go and do likewise.