Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples. “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are the authorized interpreters of Moses’ Law. So you must obey and follow everything they tell you to do; do not, however, imitate their actions, because they don’t practice what they preach. They tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing even to lift a finger to help them carry those loads. They do everything so that people will see them. Look at the straps with scripture verses on them which they wear on their foreheads and arms, and notice how large they are! Notice also how long are the tassels on their cloaks! They love the best places at feasts and the reserved seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Teacher.’ You must not be called ‘Teacher,’ because you are all equal and have only one Teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father,’ because you have only the one Father in heaven. Nor should you be called ‘Leader,’ because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great.
The Problem with Religious Leaders
Here, Jesus turns a baleful gaze towards the religious leaders of the time. I have experienced this problem in my own life, in the church of my youth. We had a wonderful, dynamic, charismatic pastor who built that church from the ground up in a remarkable fashion. For a time, our church was the fastest growing one the United States and we were featured on the cover of Time Magazine for it (that was a much bigger deal then than now!).
Shortly thereafter, our pastor was caught in an unbelievable sex scandal, and he was brought to ruin for preying on many single, pretty women of the congregation. This was a devasting failure that was hard to understand. If any good can be said of it, the truth remains that even though he failed us all, he did bring many to Christ and many closer to Christ beforehand.
The situation is like what Jesus describes in today’s passage. Jesus describes leaders who were failures, really, yet they remained the “authorized interpreters of Moses’ Law. So you must obey and follow everything they tell you to do; do not, however, imitate their actions …”
The sacramental power wielded by the leader, the priest or rabbi, isn’t his. It does not spring from within him, it springs from God. This is how deeply flawed men can still be effective on Sunday, how people they marry, bury, or baptize can rest assured the sacraments are still valid even if the man performing them is found to have stumbled and fallen.