We sometimes hear talk these days about a “crisis of leadership” in our society. Recent polls seem to show that the overall approval ratings for elected leaders in the U.S. and in other countries are relatively low. It is disheartening to see polarization and gridlock in the government and to have to listen to the biting political discourse that we hear in the news media. The church is not exempt from this, of course; the crime of abuse by some members of the clergy and the mishandling of those situations by some bishops and leaders of religious orders have eroded trust in the church among some people, especially younger Catholics.
The Scripture readings for this Sunday reflect a crisis of leadership. The prophet Malachi is unequivocal in his denunciation of the priests of Israel in his day. His words were spoken probably in the fifth century before Christ, after the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon and were trying to rebuild their homeland and their religious practice. It was a time in which they were in great need of sound leadership, and the prophet was convinced that the priests were not providing it. Malachi criticizes them in the strongest of terms: “You have turned aside from the way and have caused many to falter by your instruction.”
In the section of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard today, Jesus laments the attitude and the behavior of the religious leaders of his own day. We Christians need to be careful here, lest we interpret this gospel in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus himself was an observant Jew, proud of his Jewish heritage. And the Gospels show that not all the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day displayed these characteristics. Many were sincere and exemplary in their dedication to God. We also need to remember that Matthew gave this account of Jesus’ criticisms as a warning to Christian leaders of his own community. He was challenging the leaders of the Christian community to take notice.
Leaders who “talk the talk” but do not “walk the walk” are the object of Jesus’ stinging words of rebuke. They make bold pronouncements but are slow to offer a compassionate presence toward those who are struggling to do the right thing, to carry out God’s will in their lives. They seem more interested in promoting their own careers and reputations than doing the hard work of guiding the people entrusted to their care Those of us who are priests or other pastoral ministers, who are accustomed to places of honor at banquets, read Gospel passages like this one and get a little nervous. And rightly so. It is so tempting to misuse one’s authority in a self-serving way. Pope Francis has been particularly strong in his criticisms of church leaders who adopt this approach to their ministry. He once called careerism in the church “a form of leprosy.” It does not get much stronger than that.
Each of us exercises leadership in some form, even if it may not be of the “official” variety. Perhaps we do not enjoy a position of leadership at work or in our community, a position with an official title and a corner office. But each one of us is given the opportunity to exercise leadership in our homes, our families, our neighborhood, among our friends and even in the workplace. Each of us has the capacity to make a lasting impact on others, to inspire others and to show them the way. It may not happen through explicit words or inspiring speeches. Our leadership may be enacted only through our example, through a leadership of character. But moral leadership is the most effective and important form of leadership there is.
We come to the table of the Eucharist to encounter the crucified and risen Jesus, the one who shares his very life, his very self, with us. He is the good shepherd who leads his people by his humble service, by giving himself completely for us. His own exercise of leadership led him to the place of opening his arms on the cross. But from that cross he draws all people to himself. Jesus the good shepherd sends us forth from here to shepherd others by our word, our example, and by the compassion we show them. May we pray for the courage to answer that call.
Robin Ryan, cp
Professor of Systematic Theology