Leaders as servants
31st Sunday in OT

Al Cariño
Reproduced with Permission

We know that the series of headlong confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the Scribes and Pharisees, ultimately led to Jesus' arrest, passion and death. Who are the Scribes and Pharisees? The Scribes are those who taught the law and gave concrete rules on all its implications. The Pharisees on the other hand are those who lived strictly by these rules. They struggle to live in total faithfulness to them since they believed that salvation could be attained through their own efforts, contrary to the Christian belief that we are saved only through our cooperation with the grace of God.

For living such strict lives, the Pharisees were admired by the people. And there were certainly some who led admirable lives at the time of Jesus. Unfortunately, this was the exemption rather than the rule.

In the gospel reading (Mt. 23:1-12), we see Jesus confronting the Scribes and Pharisees vis-a-vis the kind of religious leaders they were. But before doing so, Jesus acknowledged the important role they played in making the Mosaic tradition alive: "The Scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you." So, where lies the problem? In Jesus' words: "They do not practice what they preach." Not only that, they also had ignoble motives in practicing what they believed in. Jesus thus told the crowd, "Do not follow their example."

What are these practices for which Jesus condemned the Scribes and Pharisees?

Seeing how Jesus condemned these religious leaders, what is Jesus saying to us about leadership? "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." In other words, greatness in leadership is shown by being at the service of others -- to be servant-leaders.

It is in this context that we are to view Jesus' "Do not be called 'Teacher.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers." God alone is the source all truths. Thus our stance before Him is that of "learners." In our study and prayer, we are to learn by "listening" to what the Spirit has to say which ultimately will bring us to the message of Jesus. And as regards our relationship with our fellow humans, Jesus' message is that we be of service to one another. Moreover, Jesus tells us that greatness in leadership is not acquired by titles of honor and worldly dignity -- which the Scribes and Pharisees crave -- but by our readiness to serve one another: "The greatest among you will be your servant." To be a Christian leader is to be a servant.

This is what people in authority -- in the Church, in government, private companies and everyone in their individual capacity -- are to do. And to the degree that they carry out the role of servant, to that degree they become effective and great leaders. For example, it is when the Popes were really "Servants of the servants of God" that the goals of the Church has been advanced fastest. The same can be said of our priests in the parishes who are there to "minister to" (another way of saying "to serve") the needs of the people. In government, the most accepted and admired officials are those who really act as "servants of the people." The most successful and loved parents are those who place themselves in unselfish service to their children. The same is true of teachers, etc.

However, if we are not careful, our kind of leadership can easily be turned from humble and selfless service to a tyrannical one. This happens when authority is turned into authoritarianism. Then we begin to view authority as something for our personal interest and glory. Then we find ourselves saying, "What are we in power for." Then we begin to lord it over others. In short, we become little tyrants. This is the complete opposite of leadership in a Christian community where only service of others counts.

So that we will not stand condemned before God as the Scribes and Pharisees were, let us use positions of leadership entrusted to us in the service of others.