“Only one is your teacher, the Messiah.”
How quickly many of us flock to spiritual gurus. It seems the more trendy the teaching, or the more dramatic the presenter the more likely we are to get in line to identify ourselves with them. Often we know very little about their personal lives, especially if they are one of the TV gurus or if they travel the conference circuit. This lack of discernment on our part has lead to many abusive situations in Christian ministry today and certainly accounts for a lot of the spiritual confusion we find. But the situation was very similar in Jesus’ day.
When we hear the word Pharisee today it immediately brings to mind hypocrite or spiritual coldness but in reality Pharisaism began as a renewal movement within Judaism which had become abstract, with little application to the average believer’s daily life. Religion was confined to the temple rituals. Pharisaism sought to develop teachings which would make faith real seven days a week. The movement was organized as local societies in each city; they were in nature and purpose not unlike the Knights of Columbus or Christian Businessmen Association of today. In time, however, the integrity of the movement degraded so that what remained were volumes of teaching without authentic, Godly teachers. None-the-less, the people of Jesus’ day were so hungry for something that they hitched themselves up to anyone who seemed to speak with any degree of certainty.
Jesus tried to remedy this. He offered the people several simple guidelines in evaluating a teacher. First, the teacher must not preach what they themselves did not practice. Second, they should not be too showy about their spirituality, reciting their miracles and ministry accomplishments for the applause of the crowd or displaying their academic degrees in an attempt to credential themselves. The proof that the ministry is of God and has authority comes not in the big things like miracles or PhDs but in the little things like how the teacher treats his or her family or staff. And third, they should not use their ministry as a means for status and personal gain.
If teachers, priests, ministers or religious sometimes fail to meet these criteria, it is often our fault. First, we tend to put our spiritual leaders on pedestals and require that they always be perfect. We go to confession to them but we would be offended if they ever confessed their failings to us. Without this opportunity for transparency and vulnerability, they do not have the same chance for healing and growth. Second, we tend to isolate our leaders into artificial environments, to separate them from the real ebb and flow of ordinary life. If they are mainly known to us through the up-front ministry, then that is how they will know themselves; that is what they will focus on …doing liturgy well but life poorly. Third, especially in a hierarchical structure, we may confuse title and position with closeness to God and His power rather than with function and service. This confusion on our part may make it easier for our leaders to be tempted to take advantage of our good desire to honor God through his chosen ministers.
Jesus offers guru followers some final advice on the subject of teachers. “Call no man father.” While he begins this passage, encouraging the legitimate recognition and honoring of religious leaders, he cautions that ultimately each of us is responsible before God, our Father, for our own spiritual well being. While what others say is valuable, we ourselves must cultivate a life of prayer with God and become grounded in truth through daily study of sacred scripture and the teachings of the Church. Unfortunately, this path takes more work than turning on the TV or attending the next big conference. We must know Jesus the Teacher for ourselves.
Thirty-First Sunday Mal.1:14-2:10; I Thes. 2:2-13;Mt. 23:1-12
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.