Malachi 1:14B-2:2B, 8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13
These words may be familiar to you. We hear them in Mary’s Magnificat, as she sings the praises of God, who acts in a way counterintuitive to the plans of the world. They aren’t in this Sunday’s readings, but they perfectly capture the theme of the Gospel and the latest stream of current events.
In the era of the 24 hour news cycle, it seems like anyone and anything are up for grabs. As much as we thrive on thrusting people into the limelight, we seem to be equally—if not more so, fascinated by their demise. Entertainment icons Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have received just opprobrium. Former strategists for President Trump have been indicted for pre-campaign white-collar crime. And who can miss the ongoing controversy in the NFL? These events raise the age-old questions: “what does it mean to have power?” and “how do we exercise it with integrity?”
This is the theme taken up in this Sunday’s readings. Jesus and the prophet Malachi have harsh words for the establishment. “Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?” (Mal 2:10). “The scribes and the Pharisees…they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:2, 3). Jesus observes that the Pharisees have come to desire power for power’s sake: “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” (23:4-5). To this, Jesus offers a bold alternative: “You are all brothers…the greatest among you must be your servant” (23:8, 11). In other words, power doesn’t look like what you think it does.
Jesus models this frequently throughout his ministry, most poignantly when he washes the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. Time and time again, he uses the intimate language of family to describe the standard of relations between people. Those who wish to be truly great aren’t focused on their own appearance of greatness, but on doing what is right for others. It is these leaders who truly move the world to a place of greater alignment with the Kingdom of God.
We see a model of this in St. Paul. The second reading describes Paul’s ministry with the Thessalonians. His attitude is similar to Jesus, acting with gentleness, affection, and a lack of self-interest. Paul’s concern is not with the eloquence of his own preaching, but that his charges are “receiving not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God” (1 Thes 2:13).
We can learn from these biblical examples. Many of us may not have a lofty position in the public eye, but most of us are in some role of authority. We are a parent of a child, a shift manager, a project team leader, a coach, a committee head. When we are in these positions of “power,” how do we behave? How do we treat those in our charge? It can be very easy to allow even a little bit of control to influence the way we interact with others. It can also influence the way we see ourselves. If you were cast down from your “throne,” would you still be content?
Jesus’ call is one of continual humility. This week, consider where you are looking for affirmation, meaning, and fulfillment. How much pride do you take in your position of authority? More and more, let us accept Jesus’ invitation to be people of self-offering, not self-aggrandizement.
God of power and might, wisdom and justice,
compassion and humility,
Through you authority is rightly administered,
Laws are enacted, and judgment is decreed.
Assist with your spirit of counsel and fortitude
all political, cultural, and religious leaders.
May they always seek the ways of righteousness and mercy.
Grant that they may be protected
from pride, vainglory, and selfish ambition.
May they lead by example with honesty and integrity.
We ask this through Christ our Lord,
who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever.
—Adapted from “Prayer for Government Leaders“