Today’s gospel is the beginning of a swingeing diatribe against the Pharisees and the Scribes. In a series of verbal body blows, Jesus calls them, successively, a brood of vipers, serpents, show-offs, and, worst of all, money-grabbing, widow swindling, heartless hypocrites. It’s thought that this passage in Matthew’s gospel, written not long after the total destruction of Jerusalem by the emperor Titus in 70AD, reflects a polemic that had arisen between sections of Christianity and Judaism when the Christian Church was painfully detaching itself from its Jewish origins. Among the dispersed Jewish population that resulted from Jerusalem’s cataclysmic destruction, authority and influence had passed to a school of Pharisees who had gained almost total control over every aspect of Jewish life. The writer of the gospel has in his sights this extreme Pharisaic form of Judaism that had now begun to exclude and even persecute Christians as heretics and nonconformists. But that’s only part of the story. Matthew is criticising not just these Jewish extremists but also Christian leaders who were modelling themselves on them.
This, it’s thought lies behind the outlawing of titles: call no one rabbi, father or teacher. In the time of Jesus, the title ‘Rabbi’, for instance, was one of respect; but by the time of this gospel, it was the official title of an ordained doctor of the law, carrying prestige and status. Matthew is criticising Christians who were adopting these or similar titles, and thereby belying the distinctive nature of Christian leadership which, as explicitly taught by Jesus himself, is rooted in service not power. These criticisms, then, were aimed at those who, by setting themselves up in positions of authority to serve their own vain self-interest, were in danger of unwittingly displacing God, the source of all true authority, just as the Pharisaic leaders had done before them. That central message of the gospel is contained in the saying at the end of this passage that “the greatest among you must be your servant”.
Jesus had said of himself that he had come to serve, not to be served, and in washing the feet of the disciples, had undertaken the most menial task reserved to the most junior slave of the household. He had explicitly told the disciples to do the same to one another. What’s being enunciated here is one of the central paradoxes of the Christian Gospel, as little understood by the world then as now, and one that cuts across one of the most conspicuous symptoms of our fallen state, namely, our tendency to seek and abuse power for our own ends, whether on the large scale of the tyrants of this world, or the small but equally real scale of our own relationships. Jesus refused to exercise personal power, both human and divine; he resisted the besetting temptation of all who occupy positions of authority, be they parents, teachers, politicians or priests, to substitute power for influence. He also refused to exercise political power, by not putting himself at the head of a revolutionary movement, as the Zealots expected of him. Divine authority simply does not translate into the power of the strong over the weak.
Power, of course, is not in itself wrong, despite its tendency, according to Lord Acton, to corrupt us. On the contrary, effective power for good arises from our sharing, by God’s grace, in his own creative power. Conversely, neither is powerlessness an evil. On the contrary, holiness in this life will consist in large part in our accepting powerlessness and even failure. The most dangerous of all persons is one who either does not know or cannot accept his or her limitations, especially when that person is in a position of power. Everything depends on how power is used and powerlessness is lived with. Power is to be put only at the service of the good and, among Christians, the exercise of authority is to be understood solely in terms of service. The equation of authority with service and the use of power to serve only the good is a radical idea with revolutionary ramifications. But it too often remains an idea only, to which lip service is paid in the Church, the State and in most of our civic institutions, where rhetoric all-too-often belies reality. We are as uneasy with unseen, unremarked and unnoticed personal service, rendered to any in need, without distinction, as was the age in which Jesus lived. We are wary lest it be damaging to our dignity or demeaning of our status. We are much less nervous about serving a public institution, where there is no risk to our personal resources and the real possibility of prestige and kudos, if only the distant prospect of a flattering obituary. But this is a far cry from what Jesus means by service.
His service was to the impoverished, the incompetent and the distressed, in both mind and body, without influence and reputation or the ability to repay or make good personal loss incurred. Jesus said of Himself: “I am among you as one who serves”. The word used in the New Testament is unambiguous: ‘slave’, and more specifically, a slave who waits at table, a deacon, at the beck and call of all, at all times. If the Church is the Body of Christ, what characterises the head extends to the whole body. Service is the essential, defining characteristic of the Church as a whole. Not for nothing, the pope’s oldest and most venerable title, dating from St Gregory the Great and based by him explicitly on this gospel, is Servus servorum Dei, the Servant of the Servants of God. Not for nothing do bishops refer to themselves in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass as “me, your unworthy servant”; and until recently, all who were ordained received the tonsure, the identifying mark of a slave. The genuineness of service is secured only in the seeking of what is genuinely good for all: in love, in other words, whose genuineness, in turn, is secured, according to Aquinas, when the good of another becomes our own good.