The honor that comes along with leadership can intoxicate.
Israel has a long history of leaders who forget that their power is given not for the sake of the individual but for service to the holy nation.
Aaron, the father of the priestly tribe in Israel, leads the people in creating a golden calf for worship.
Saul uses his power to conjure up spirits, refusing to give up the kingship when God elects David as the new servant of the Lord.
David has Uriah killed so that he could take Bathsheba as his wife.
Solomon, who has been given a supreme outpouring of wisdom, enters into covenants with other nations, worshipping other gods.
In the Book of Malachi, we hear the Lord warn priests in the post-exilic era that if they do not live up to their calling, their blessing will be taken away: “If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart ... I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse” (Mal 2:1-2).
Our Lord confronts the Pharisees, condemning them for abusing their power. Note that Jesus does not doubt the legitimacy of the Pharisees’ power, exhorting Jerusalem to listen to them: “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example” (Mt 23:3).
Our Lord does not find fault with the Pharisees’ commitment to the Law. This is their call, the blessing they are to offer to the nations.
But they confuse this blessing as something given for their own honor: “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’” (Mt 23:6-7).
The Pharisees have been chosen as leaders, as radical followers of the Law not for the sake of their own elevation, but so that they might bring all nations to the mountain of the Lord.
The Pharisees’ sin is not unique to them. Christians are by no means immune to seeking out places of honor.
Priests, rather than preach the Gospel with joy, can delight in the various titles they have received.
Theologians, rather than seek the truth in love, can see themselves as the most enlightened of all Christians, refusing to listen to ordinary men and women who have taken up their cross.
Lay pastoral workers can delight in the standards they have created, emphasizing the honor reserved for their guild, the standards that set them apart from the hoi polloi.
Lay men and women who attend Mass, who are happily married, who pray regularly, can still set up barriers against the rest of the world, refusing to offer divine mercy to anyone except those exactly like themselves.
This attitude is a form of idolatry. We worship our own identity rather than that of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ who came not to seize power but to empty himself out of love.
St. Paul reminds us what the vocation of the Christian is in preaching the Gospel. We are not to seek honor, power or glory. Instead, we are to become “gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thes 2:7).
No good mother seeks to be honored by her children. Instead, she delights in playing with her child, teaching her child the basics of human life.
Christian leadership is about this kind of love. It’s not about the seeking of power, of grand titles.
It is instead a work of love whereby we offer to the world the good news that Our Lord has died and been raised from the dead.
That love has won.
And this is our only honor.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.