Love in Return for Love
Thirty-first Sunday of the Year. Fr Gregory Pearson preaches on the source of all true authority.
What’s the problem with the way the scribes and the Pharisees go about things? Is it that they claim an authority to teach people and to interpret the law when they shouldn’t? It can’t be quite as simple as that, because Christ himself in today’s Gospel affirms their authority: they occupy the chair of Moses, and therefore people must listen to them and do as they say.
If they are not wrong to think they have this authority, perhaps even duty, to teach, then the problem must lie elsewhere. It appears, rather, to be in their motivation for teaching. Everything they do, Jesus says, is done to attract attention: wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels and so on are obvious visible ways to draw attention to themselves, but that ‘everything’ would include also their very task of teaching and the exercise of that authority which is theirs. Their role as teachers of the law and the authority it carries are, it seems, something they value for what it brings to them.
It’s in this context of flawed motivation for teaching and the exercise of authority that we might want to approach Our Lord’s words in the second half of today’s Gospel passage about calling no one Rabbi or father or teacher. After all, as we have seen, Christ has just said that the scribes and Pharisees do legitimately teach, and of course, we might also note that everyone does have an earthly father. Given that, why does Christ teach us not to identify anyone on earth in those terms?
In our use of language in general, the original meaning of a word tends to expand by analogy and metaphor. So, for example, a field starts out as a plot of land where plants are grown for food, and the term comes to refer also to an area of knowledge in which ideas are, as it were, grown. This is true also of our use of language to speak about God. Our experience of authority starts out from that which parents and teachers exercise over us, so it is not surprising that we would use these kinds of term to talk about the authority of God. But in today’s Gospel we learn that, however our use of language about God might have developed, the authority we observe exercised in human relations is ultimately founded and modelled on the dominion, fatherhood and teaching authority of God.
And here’s where we see how the scribes and Pharisees go wrong in their use of their authority, as Jesus characterises it. For them, as we saw, their authority as teachers is something which gives them an exalted status of which they make the most. Yet Christ shows us that the true pattern of the exercise of authority in our world looks very different: Christ, God made flesh and dwelling among us as a human being, exercises that authority by allowing himself to be tortured and put to a shameful death. As he tells us in today’s Gospel, ‘the greatest among you must be your servant … Anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’
It’s not that somehow demonstrative humility is a hoop we have to jump through to get the exaltation we really want – that would be the same mistake the Pharisees are making with their long tassels and so on. Our sharing in the authority of Christ, in his heavenly kingdom, cannot be founded on pretence or dissimulation. We can only share in Christ’s role as teacher and lord – and that is the exalted status, a share in his kingdom, to which he invites us – if we truly give ourselves for others as he does on the Cross, which is not just a necessary humiliating preliminary to his glory but the moment of his exaltation: ‘now is the Son of Man glorified,’ he says on the eve of his Passion (Jn 13:31). It is in that moment of perfect gift of self, of perfect obedience to the Father, that Christ reveals his majesty, and shows us the true pattern of all authority – not as a basis for attaining honour or an opportunity to push people around but a giving of self for others in love which prompts a response of obedience not out of fear, but out of love in return for love.
Image: Christ teaching, from a fresco by Fra Angelico from the cells of the Dominican convent of San Marco, Florence, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP