We must exercise our prophetic role, which can mean challenging our leaders

by Thomas Gumbleton

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And now, my brothers and sisters, this is just the beginning of Chapter 23, and as you can tell, it's a very harsh judgment on the part of Jesus against the religious leaders -- the scribes, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians -- all of them. And as you go through the chapter, it becomes even more critical and harsh.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls)
Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalms 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
Romans 5:5-11 or Romans 6:3-9
John 6:37-40
Full text of the readings

Just for example, just a little bit further on, Jesus says, "Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You shut the door to the reign of God in people's faces. You, yourselves, do not enter, nor do you allow others to do. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You devour women and widows' houses, even while for a pretense, you make all in prayers."

What Jesus is doing is making very critical, harsh judgments about the religious leaders of his day. Now, this Gospel and especially this Chapter 23, what you heard earlier in the first lesson from the Book of Malachi, and other prophets, we discover that Jesus, as the other prophets do, is making some very harsh judgments about the leadership of the religious community of his time.

But there's a danger when we listen to this, or read this and pray over it, because over the years, it just seems so harsh against the Jewish leaders. And over the centuries, many in the Christian community of Jews, this Chapter 23 of Matthew has justification for anti-Semitism, to act in a hateful or speak in a hateful way about Jews.

And there's no justification for that, if we listen carefully and really discern what Jesus is doing. First of all, it's in the line of the prophets. Other prophets do the same thing to these first lessons. Malachi is very harsh in speaking about the religious leadership of his day: "Cursed be the cheater, who, after promising me a bull from his herd, sacrifices a stunted animal. This warning is also for you, you priests. If you do not listen to it or concern yourself to glorify my name, says the God of hosts, I will send a curse on you and curse even your blessings."

Malachi is very blunt about the Jewish leadership, as were other prophets. And now in today's Gospel and throughout Chapter 23 of Matthew, we hear Jesus speaking this way. But first of all, we have to remember that Malachi and the other prophets -- Jesus, all of them -- were Jews speaking to their own Jewish leadership. They weren't trying to destroy the Jewish people in any way. They loved the Jewish people, but as God had arranged, God was sending prophets -- those who speak in God's name to challenge the leadership, which was failing to carry out the role of leadership the way God intended.

And so this is what Jesus is doing. He is acting in his prophetic role and carrying out the message that God has sent him to proclaim to call back the chosen people to faithfulness, to their covenant, and that requires that their leaders act as the leaders in this community of disciples of Jesus should be acting. I remind you, if we just look back in Matthew's Gospel to Chapter 20, we find how Jesus describes what leadership should be in the community of disciples.

This is an incident that happens toward the end of the life of Jesus, and perhaps the disciples are sensing that he's going to be leaving. He's been talking about going to Jerusalem to be crucified. And at this point, at any rate, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the apostles James and John, comes to Jesus and says, she asked him, "Here you have my two sons. Grant that they may sit one at your right hand and one at your left when you are in your kingdom."

Jesus was appalled. He had been teaching so differently, but now the mother of the sons of Zebedee, and the two disciples themselves, are asking for the highest places. They're trying to make sure that they're going to be right there at the top, ruling over others and receiving all kinds of acclamation and so on. But then Jesus -- well, I just mentioned, too, the other disciples, when they heard about this, they were upset and angry with the two brothers because they didn't want this to happen.

But now Jesus calls them all together, and here is his model for leadership: "You know that the rulers of the nations act as tyrants over them, but it shall not be so among you. Whoever wants to be more important in your community shall make yourself a servant. And if you want to be the first of all, make yourself the servant of all. Be like the son of man" -- he's talking about himself -- "who has come not to be served, but to serve, even to give his life for all."

That's the model of leadership that Jesus is looking for in his church. And, sorry to say, back then, the leadership was failing, and that's another reason why Matthew put these passages in Chapter 23. Because at the time that Matthew was writing, within the church itself, the leadership was already beginning to try to have the first places, have places of honor, be recognized by all, wear special kind of clothing that drew attention to themselves, reserved seats to the synagogue.

They, at the time of Matthew -- and remember this is a Jewish community who are followers of Jesus, and Matthew's words are being directed to that community itself, not to justify anti-Semitism down through the centuries, it's the way that God has always acted with God's people. God sends those who are to be, who are prophets. God calls them to be prophets and to challenge the leadership when it fails to be the kind of leadership Jesus is looking for.

In the community of disciples, Jesus has been teaching them. There are to be no distinctions among his disciples. No one group is to tie up heavy burdens, hard to carry, and lay them on people's shoulders. Which one preaches, one is also to practice. And in the Vatican Council, one of the marvelous teachings that came out of the council about the church, the community of disciples of Jesus, is that in this community, everyone is equal in freedom and dignity -- equal in freedom and dignity, and all have responsibility.

I reminded us before that at baptism, when you're signed with chrism, the minister at baptism calls you to be priest, prophet and ruler, and, as Jesus was, to imitate him. But everyone is called to this prophetic stance, and at times to challenge the leaders of the community. During this weekend itself, I've been participating with a Catholic lay group that came into existence at the time that the sex abuse scandal broke out into the open in a dramatic way in Boston, and they began to form a group they called Voice of the Faithful, determined that the people of God would be heard during this crisis.

And it's a sad truth that, for so long, the whole crisis has been mishandled by leaders of the church. Instead of being pastors reaching out to those who were abused, the bishops immediately made it a legal situation, where the bishops become adversaries in a court instead of the bishop being pastors to the people, especially to those so hurt, so wounded, devastated by what had happened.

And we still do not have that kind of really pastoral ministry being exercised by our leaders in the church. The bishops have not held themselves accountable for what is going on ... This program I participated in yesterday was called "The Healing Circle," and it was an attempt to help those who had survived the terrible abuse to be healed. It's always not something confrontational, not something adversarial. It was the people of the church reaching out to other people in the church who have been so traumatically healed.

We don't think of it often, but we should remind ourselves, all of us, that we are called to be prophets also. And just as Malachi, a Jew, was prophetic, speaking prophetically to the Jewish people, and Jesus, a Jew, doing the same thing, so now we as brothers and sisters of Jesus, brothers and sisters to one another in the whole community of disciples, must challenge one another, must exercise our prophetic role.

And that means sometimes challenging the very leadership. If in our church, bishops are setting themselves above others, becoming domineering instead of being a shepherd of the sheep, being among sheep, listening, bringing healing, we have to challenge that. It seems like a bold thing to do, but Jesus was not a priest. He was not; [he] had no title in the Jewish community. He nevertheless spoke out. And most of the prophets were members of the community that God called to speak and to challenge and to try to bring back to the ways of God what the kind of leadership that Jesus calls for.

And finally, if we want to understand what that leadership might be, we can look at our first lesson today and see how Paul describes himself coming among the people of Thessalonica. He says, when he came among them, "We were gentle with you, as a nursing mother who feeds and cuddles her baby. And so great is our concerns, that we are ready to give you, as well as the Gospel, even our very lives, for you have become very dear to us."

See, that's the kind of leadership -- serving as a nursing mother could serve her baby. Or an earlier part of Paul's same letter to the Thessalonians, he said, "We treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you." That's the kind of leadership that we need. And we can look around in our church, and in many ways we see it's not happening. Groups like Voice of the Faithful have come together to try to challenge our church leaders to bring them to the kind of leadership that Jesus calls them to be.

Perhaps we have to join with that group, or some other groups, and be those who try to speak in a prophetic way and live in a prophetic way, ourselves being servants to one another as Jesus was calling his community to reform. And down through the ages at various times, the church has been called to reform, so today we need that.

And all of us must at least, the very least, pray that we can bring about the kind of reform and church leadership that Pope Francis, actually, is modeling for us now. Pray that that can happen among all the leaders of our church, and at times work to make it happen in various ways by joining groups who are speaking prophetically, being part of that.

This may seem unusually strange, and yet it's always been the case in the church. The same from the very beginning, almost, to the church is that the church is always in need of reform. And so often, that reform is brought about because the people of the church have demanded reform in their leadership. Today we need to demand that, pray for it, and try to make it happen.

[Homily given at St. Anselm Church in Sudbury, Mass. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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