Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 5, 2023 — Year A
Readings: Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10 / Ps 131 / 1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13 / Mt 23:1-12
by Rev. Nixon Negparanon, Pastor
One of the criticisms directed at Catholics by our Protestant fundamentalist brethren, especially the born-again Christian groups, is about the address we give to the Pope as “Holy Father” and also to all priests as “Father.” They say that this is against the teaching of Christ in the Bible. They cite today’s gospel reading, especially verse nine that says, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.”
If we follow this kind of interpretation, it is an absurd one. If taken literally, the word would forbid us to call our natural father, “father.” How would a father feel if his children did not address him as Father, Dad, Papa, or Daddy? Instead, his children would be forced to use his given name. Would he agree to this? Surely not. He may even scold or get angry with them. Along these same lines, how are we to address our schoolteachers if there is only one teacher?
What Christ wants to teach us is that our concern should not be for honors, worldly dignity, and a craving for first places in gatherings. If we extend our helping hands to others in need, we should not be proud that it is coming from us, but rather, we should announce that it is coming from God. We are just doing our job and should not expect any return.
In today’s gospel, Jesus affirms the Pharisees and scribes as legitimate leaders of people following Moses. He tells His disciples to obey and respect them, but not to follow their example. What they say is true, so follow them, but in practice, they are misusing their authority for the sake of their selfish advantage, so do not imitate their example.
Why does Jesus forbid His disciples to use the titles of “father” and “teacher”? Even Saint Paul referred to himself as the Father of the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 4:15. Is it because this can be abused and misused? It is in the abuse sense that these titles are forbidden from being used. Many use their titles, positions in organizations and government, and honors, to threaten, look down on, exploit, deprive, and oppress other people.
The message of today’s gospel is a clear warning to all who hold office and authority in God’s Church, whether as priests, bishops, or superiors. This gospel also applies to all of us. One such example is when parents use their authority as parents to justify what they are doing instead of listening to their child’s pleas. For our government officials, corporate leaders, and to anyone that holds authority, many people say that authority is bad. They say that power corrupts. Every day we hear stories in the media about scandals among politicians, corporate heads, even in the Church, and among others who hold positions of authority.
Authority, however, is good because it comes from God. God entrusts a share of His authority to men and women. It is the abuse of authority that makes it a bad thing. Just like money. Money is good and is not the root of evil. It becomes the root of evil when we begin to love it and make money our god. Authority is entrusted to us by God, not to dominate and exploit others, but for service. Leadership is service and should be by example. It is service that matters. If we want to become great human beings and outstanding Christians, then we must serve the rest.
Our service might take the form of meeting material and physical needs like washing or cooking meals for the family. These are small things and often taken for granted, but in the eyes of God, the greatest performance we ever have. Our service might take the form of caring for the emotional and psychological needs of others, like offering companionship and friendship when they are down, speaking words of hope and encouragement, showing acceptance and giving recognition. Servanthood is not about position or skill. It is about attitude.
We have undoubtedly met persons in service positions, like people in government organizations, church, and others, who have poor attitudes toward servanthood. Just as we can sense when a worker doesn’t want to help people, we can just as easily detect when a leader has a servant’s heart. The truth is that the best leaders desire to serve others, not themselves.
John C. Maxwell, in his book Leadership Promises for Every Day said, “The true servant leaders put others ahead of their own agenda, possess the confidence to serve, initiate service to others, are not position-conscious, and serve out of love.” The call to leadership through service is not only addressed to clergy and to those who hold apostolic office in the Church and to those who hold positions. All Christians are called to show leadership through service.
Those baptized people who do not seek to serve God and their fellow human beings cannot be Christians. Each one of us has the responsibility to show the authenticity of the Christian message through our love and service. For example, the best husband is the one who meets the needs of his wife most generously. The good boss is the first one to do what he expects from his subordinates. The concerned school principal who reports to school early, joins the teachers in being punctual for their duties. The dedicated head of the office that attends to his tasks, inspires the other employees to work efficiently and effectively. Thus the greatest among us must be the first to serve.
Even the Pope is reminded of this by his title, “Servant of Servants.” If we know some Christian leaders who are as hypocritical as the scribes and Pharisees described in today’s gospel, the challenge for us would be to try to make a distinction between what they teach (which may be sound) and how they live (which may not be worthy of emulation.) Those who distance themselves from the Church because they heard or saw unbecoming behavior of a Church leader may indeed be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We must not do this. Abuse of an office does not nullify the validity of the office itself.
The gospel ends up with a call of evangelical humility which is recognition that in the eyes of God, everyone is equal. It is the recognition that those who evangelize or minister to others, are not below us, but are in fact equal to us in the eyes of God. With this humility, preaching becomes not talking down to the people, but sharing with them our common struggle to understand and live God’s word.