The readings for today’s liturgy remind us that leadership is essential. The objects of the comments made by Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples were the scribes and Pharisees. During Jesus’ time, the scribes were like religious intellectuals, theologians, and professional lawyers who were adept in applying the Law to everyday life while the Pharisees were like a fraternity of laymen who joined together to meticulously observe the law with great precision. In the gospel, both groups were the object of ridicule by Jesus. He criticized them because they “do not practice what they preach.” His criticism echoed the age-old teaching of the prophet that if they had the true spirit of the covenant, they would not interpret what the covenant required of God’s people in a way that made it next to impossible for the common people to give faithful observance.
Though they should have helped the nation to be one family under their “one Father in heaven,” they interpreted the Law in such a way that their elaborate observance gave them an elite status — which they celebrated by wearing the trappings of self-importance and seeing themselves as deserving the admiration of the common people they despised. For example, the tassels in Deuteronomy (22:12) were another sign as established by God to be a reminder of His Word and Law. Tassels or fringes were to be attached to the hems of the outer garment in its four corners to remind a Jew of his attachment to the commandments. Today these tassels or fringes can be found attached to prayer shawls. Similar to the large phylacteries, these tassels could be enlarged by the Pharisees in order to attract attention to their obedience and piety.
Moreover, the seat of honor at any banquet would be on either side of the person hosting the banquet. In the synagogue the front seats actually faced the entire congregation much as the chair of the priest presider does in churches today. These were considered to be seats of honor which would typically be reserved for the elders. Those individuals seated here were in clear view of the congregation and their actions and piety could be plainly observed.
These examples were what angered Jesus, for leaders had the tendency
to call attention to themselves and instead of bringing people to God,
they bring people’s attention to themselves. He is condemning these
externals as well as the elitist pretensions currently being
associated with such terms as Rabbi by the scribes and the Pharisees.
Heeding the teaching of Christ, God’s people will recognize their
fundamental equality before their common Father. Those called to
positions of leadership among them will make themselves `the last of
all and the servants of all’ (Mk 9:35); and all those who claim to be
commit ted followers of the Lord must be on their guard against the
spirit of self-importance that can be so damaging to the life of the