Image: Orthodox icon of Jesus washing the feet of disciples (https://chicago.goarch.org).
Ordinary Sunday 31, Year A
1 Thessalonians 2:9-20; Matthew 23:1-12
Our Orthodox icon shows Jesus washing the feet of disciples (a scene from John’s gospel). It’s about being kind (even amid difficulty and under stress). It’s about mutual service. It’s about equality – “encouraging, comforting and urging … lives worthy of God” (as the Apostle Paul says). It’s about bare feet and holy ground, hard traveling and “walking the walk”. And it’s about overturning expectations of honour and status.
Our gospel from Matthew is concerned with servant leadership; more precisely, with authoritative teaching. As a portrait of abusive authority, it says less about late first-century Pharisees (many of whom, no doubt, were decent and compassionate teachers grappling with the meaning of faith), than pompous moralists of all times and places – leaders prone to hypocrisy, sometimes vanity and superiority.
Perhaps we know about God’s “grace” but not so much about graciousness, not so much about being grateful, being graceful, living graciously.
I remember when my faith was essentially an out-of-body affair, assent to a single theory of salvation (Penal Substitution) I later learned came to prominence in the 16th century. Faith was assent to a theory based on sacrificial and legal metaphors neither explained nor examined, and without reference to other theories (none of which the church catholic insists upon in terms of creeds or formal doctrine).
I was not, as a teenager, aware of the Exemplarist model, the ancient theory that the example of Christ’s love had power to attract and to transform. I was not aware of the Cosmic Struggle model either, the ancient theory that in Christ forces of evil were duped, defeated or overcome. All that came later …
Thanks to godly leadership (in an ecumenical setting), I experienced conversion from a narrow place of religious identity to a cross-cultural community very much centred on Christ’s example, on Christ-like kindness, solidarity with the most vulnerable, courage and reverence for life; a community whose poetic professions of evil-overcome are engaging, political and cosmic; a community whose understandings of sacrifice and redemption relate to the very real costs of inclusion.
I have learnt from godly leaders … teachers who taught me the Greek word for “salvation” … healing, wellness … who encouraged questions: What healing is needed in this time and place? Whose calls for help, for support, for empowerment and wellbeing are discerned here, now? How does the good news of God in Christ address these needs?
I continue to learn from godly leaders like Pax Christi* … lessons “in Christ” for today …
In Christ … that is, rooted in a deep belief in the dignity of every person and of our common home, a nonviolent process toward just peace would begin with the recognition that all Israelis and all Palestinians have a right to live with dignity in peace and freedom.
In Christ … that is, supportive of steps including diplomacy to negotiate, for example, a humanitarian ceasefire that leads to a permanent ceasefire; access in Gaza to food, water, electricity, internet and essential services; release of the hostages held by Hamas; release of the political prisoners held by Israel; and an end to the blockade of Gaza, including for example, freedom of movement …
In Christ … that is, inviting unarmed civilian protection units and impartial international observers into Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and beyond as needed; arresting Hamas leaders and perpetrators of the violence on October 7 and bringing them before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity; holding the Israeli government to account internationally for failing to protect civilians in the occupied lands; and arresting and bringing to a just trial Israeli perpetrators of crimes against Palestinians and other Palestinian perpetrators of crimes against Israelis …
Like the prophets before him, Matthew’s Jesus is troubled by a law, by a religion taught for its own sake. Jesus is troubled by the exalted position some teachers take that doesn’t consider the lives of those who are to be served/helped/instructed.
Put positively, Matthew affirms Jesus as one whose “yoke is easy” and whose “burden is light”, whose “way” and wisdom we are invited to follow. In Jesus, God is the one who leads. In Jesus, God is the one who teaches.
Jesus says: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
The way of Jesus … entails society-wide efforts to address the deep trauma of the Holocaust, the Nakba (Palestinian Catastrophe) and the ongoing trauma of occupation.
The wisdom of Jesus … entails helping to build understanding of the roots of the conflict … creating public spaces for communal grief and to memorialise the loss of lives … a long-term society-wide process of practising nonviolent communication.
The way of Jesus … means widespread investment in nonviolence education and training … sharing of stories, music and art across racial and religious divides … investment in jobs, sustainable farming, education and health care …
The Apostle Paul writes to the proto church in Thessalonica: “For what is our hope, or joy, or the crown in which we glory in our Saviour Jesus at the Coming? It’s you: you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Such humility asks as to the wellbeing of others. Humility makes space for others – creative, social, personal space. It teaches by way of love, by way of taking actual circumstances and real persons into account.
Humility means more than my overcoming hypocrisy, more than the integration of my words and my actions. It means my eschewing all pompous swaggering around (whether in or without liturgical dress), for the sake of simple, serene freedom with and for others.
What’s one word you’d use to describe godly leadership? … Amen.
*Marie Dennis is a former co-president of Pax Christi International. Draws from article in the National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2023.