Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 30 October 2011
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; Psalm 131; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12
Jesus and Malachi both pointed the prophetic finger at the religious leaders of their own days, exposing their self-serving ways. I think they’d find much the same today. What is it about power and influence that makes it so hard for people not to become compromised by it? The priests of Malachi’s day must have deplored the lack of respect they received from the ‘common folk’, blaming it no doubt upon secularism or whatever was the ancient equivalent. In fact, it was the favouritism they showed and their faithlessness that did it. They weren’t taking seriously enough the truth that God’s people are exactly that – God’s. This was not their own personal fiefdom to lord it over in their own interests. God the king, whose power they were attempting to yield in their own way, would not play along, but turned against them for the sake of God’s people. God’s kingship did not legitimate their own power, as they would have liked, but challenged and undermined it.
Jesus paints a comically scathing picture of religious leaders with all their paraphernalia who have all the words right but whose attitudes contradict what they say. They are playing the status game, and expect to be honoured and pandered to. Jesus wants his followers to do things very differently. Leadership and positions of influence are not in themselves wrong – they are necessary for effective functioning, and leaders are a gift to the church. But it is to be leadership among equals without the status games that imply that some are intrinsically more valuable than others. The fact that God is our Father does not divinise the power of physical and spiritual fathers but relativises it.
How does one exercise Christ-like leadership? Paul describes a ‘mothering’ style of leadership which is focused upon the well-being and growth of the other. This kind of leader will happily toil at the most menial of tasks motivated by love and wanting the very best for their community. When done authentically it bears wonderful fruit. But a ‘mothering’ style also has its pitfalls. If the servant leader is not operating from a healthy space, then ‘serving’ others can become a way of extracting from others what they need for themselves. The people of God are still being used to fulfil the leader’s own agenda.
Ultimately, no one can be an effective Christ-like leader without the kind of spirituality reflected in Psalm 131. Here the worshipper is grounded in God, free of arrogance on the one hand and neediness on the other. There is simply quiet confidence, a trustful resting in God. The soul work that produces this realistic self-assessment, freedom from selfish ambition, and ability to rest comfortably in God’s presence, lays a solid foundation for great leadership.