Humble Servant

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Matthew 23:1-12)

Scripture Study

23:2–3. Moses passed on to the people the Law received from God. The scribes, who for the most part sided with the Pharisees, had the function of educating the people in the Law of Moses; that is why they were said to “sit on Moses’ seat”. Our Lord recognized that the scribes and Pharisees did have authority to teach the Law; but he warns the people and his disciples to be sure to distinguish the Law as read out and taught in the synagogues from the practical interpretations of the Law to be seen in their leaders’ lifestyles. Some years later, St Paul—a Pharisee like his father before him—faced his former colleagues with exactly the same kind of accusations as Jesus makes here: “You then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ ” (Rom 2:21–24).

23:5. “Phylacteries”: belts or bands carrying quotations from Holy Scripture which the Jews used to wear fastened to their arms or foreheads. To mark themselves out as more religiously observant than others, the Pharisees used to wear broader phylacteries. The fringes were light-blue stripes on the hems of cloaks; the Pharisees ostentatiously wore broader fringes.

23:8–10. Jesus comes to teach the Truth; in fact, he is the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6). As a teacher, therefore, he is absolutely unique and unparalleled. “The whole of Christ’s life was a continual teaching: his silences, his miracles, his gestures, his prayer, his love for people, his special affection for the little and the poor, his acceptance of the total sacrifice on the cross for the redemption of the world, and his resurrection are the actualization of his word and the fulfilment of revelation. Hence for Christians the crucifix is one of the most sublime and popular images of Christ the Teacher.

“These considerations are in line with the great traditions of the Church and they all strengthen our fervor with regard to Christ, the Teacher who reveals God to man and man to himself, the Teacher who saves, sanctifies and guides, who lives, who speaks, rouses, moves, redresses, judges, forgives, and goes with us day by day on the path of history, the Teacher who comes and will come in glory” (John Paul II, Catechesi tradendae, 9).

23:11. The Pharisees were greedy for honor and recognition: our Lord insists that every form of authority, particularly in the context of religion, should be exercised as a form of service of others; it must not be used to indulge personal vanity or greed. “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant”.

23:12. A spirit of pride and ambition is incompatible with being a disciple of Christ. Here our Lord stresses the need for true humility, for anyone who is to follow him. The verbs “will be humbled”, “will be exalted” have “God” as their active agent. Along the same lines, St James preaches that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6). And in the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin explains that the Lord “has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree [the humble]” (Lk 1:52). 

Scripture Reflection

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus turns his sharp eye and withering critique on the many ways that religious leaders fall into corruption. What precisely is bothering Jesus? Some religious leaders get their kicks from burdening people, laying the law on them heavily, making demands that are terrible, exulting in their own moral superiority.

At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.

Another classic problem with religious people and especially religious leaders: they use the law and morality as a means of inflating the ego. The trouble is that this drug wears off rather quickly, and then we want more of it. We need a greater title, more respect, more recognition.

What is Jesus’ recommendation for those caught in this dilemma? To be great is to be a servant: lowly, simple, often forgotten. Eschew marks of respect; don’t seek them. Be satisfied with doing your work, whatever it is, on behalf of God’s kingdom.

– Bishop Robert Barron

May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV.