One of the great challenges faced by a leader is the humble recognition that however great one’s gifts might be, one cannot be a leader alone. Leadership requires a leader, yes, and if a leader is not in place, a people will drift. But a leader cannot be effective if he or she believes that they must do everything, control everything alone. Leadership is not about aggregating all power to oneself, but about working with others to achieve attainable goals.
Moses, the greatest of the Israelite leaders, discovered this truth first hand, as he was thrust reluctantly into service as the leader of the Israelites. Driven to exhaustion by the burden of leadership and the expectations of the people, his father-in-law, the tribal chieftain Jethro, advised him to appoint others to help him, to act in his name, to share in the governance of the Israelites.
This is what the first scripture to Holy Mass is about today. Moses chooses 70 elders to help him exercise leadership in service of the Israelites. Once chosen, these elders receive what the scriptures describe, as a “share in Moses’ spirit”, which means authority to act. The scriptures describe the elders are “prophesying” which can be taken to mean, that they spoke, as Moses did, with an authority that came from God.
Moses will have to trust that the elders he has appointed are responsible and capable. Trust will mean that he will hold the 70 elders accountable, but he will not be able to control all outcomes. Should they fail in their mission, then the responsibility for that failure will be accepted by Moses- for leadership is never well exercised without both responsibility and accountability.
Some are resentful in regards to Moses choice of the 70 elders. Others think that Moses has diluted his own authority and that risks chaos. In regards to these protests Moses is defiant. His decision was made, not to curry favor with any one constituency, but for the sake of the common good. He is willing to lead, but he will not be able to fulfill that mission in isolation.
Abraham Lincoln once quipped that with every decision he made he always made at least one friend and one enemy. This is an unavoidable fact of being a leader. If leadership is simply about pleasing everyone, the leader who does that will not lead for very long.
The lesson here is practical, but it should also inform our understanding and experience of the Church. The leaders in the Church have a divinely ordained mission and their authority comes from promises made to the apostles by Christ.
The Church is a hierarchy and this means that the leaders of the Church are not chosen by the people, but by God, and though God’s choice may at times confound and confuse us, it is God’s choice as to who will lead because it is God’s Church. We are stewards of the gifts Christ has given us, not owners of those gifts. We are all servants of Christ, not his master.
In the end, those called to leadership in the Church will be judged, not in reference to worldly standards or success, or whether or not the people liked or agreed with their decisions, but on the basis of whether or not they were faithful to Christ and did what he wanted them to do. If what we seek to do on behalf of the Church is not in accord with what Christ wants, no matter how successful or important it may be to us, it will not receive the blessing of God.
The leaders God has chosen are accountable, as Moses was, for their decisions and for those they appoint to help them in their mission. Leadership in the Church is not for the benefit of the one chosen for that office, nor is it for the sake of pleasing everyone, but for the sake of the service to the Church.
It is in this regard, service to the Church, that all are held accountable- both leaders and the people they serve.
Our scripture from the Letter to James is fierce and uncompromising in its tone. The Apostle decries an idolatry of riches that has unleashed terrible corruption and crimes.
Warnings about wealth abound in the Bible. In fact, there are more warnings about the consequences of greed then there are for sexual immorality (though from some people’s perceptions of the Bible, you might never know this to be the case!)
The warnings in the Bible about wealth should not be taken to mean that wealth is intrinsically evil. Wealth is actually something good, for it is a means by which many good things can be accomplished. But all good things in this world can be corrupted by human desire and sinfulness. The great concern of the Bible in regards to wealth is that it can become, as a result of our desires, an idol, that is, a false god.
Once wealth becomes an idol, a false god, it becomes extremely dangerous (as all false gods are!). False gods are the cause of our destruction and this is why the Bible is adamant that there is only one, true God, and when we don’t live in relationship to the one, true God, our lives quickly spin out of control.
In a materialistic culture such as our own, some have come to believe that the creation and attainment of wealth are ends in themselves or simply a means to serve our ego driven desires and self interested scheming. This is wealth as false god, as idol and those in the thrall of such idols are in great spiritual peril.
If we have been given wealth, the witness of the saints teaches us that what we have been given should be made a gift for others. The wealthy has been given what they have been given so that they can become holy through generosity. Only in this way can they avoid the temptation to make their wealth an idol.
The saints also remind us that in the end, none of our wealth will accompany us to heaven. We all arrive in heaven as beggars. All that our wealth has attained for us in terms of honors, pleasure and power will not matter in the least. But what we have done with our wealth will matter. Now is the time to be generous, not later.
There is a terrifying scene in Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” in which Scrooge sees a vision of the lost souls, those who worshipped wealth as a god, pathetically chained to the wealth they did not use to benefit the poor. The chains bind them to a horrific situation in which they try desperately to divest themselves of the wealth they greedily kept to themselves while they were alive, but they find themselves unable to do so. So they languish in desperation.
Death deprives us of the chance to set things right.
May Christ deliver us all from such a judgment by delivering us from an idolatry of wealth!
Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus employs hyperbole to dramatic and frightening effect! His words are fierce and true and frightening.
There are many times in the Gospel that Christ presents himself in ways that are truly frightening. His words are neither meek or mild, but divisive and harsh. Rather than just ignore this reality of Christ’s revelation, we should face it directly. The truth of Christ’s Gospel is more often than not the very truth we don’t want to hear.
Gospel passages, like the one for this Sunday, impress upon us the urgency of Christ’s invitation, the necessity of conversion, and repentance for our sins. Christ does not come into our lives simply to affirm us as we are but to save us from ourselves. And at times, like today, he will shout at us, warning us of potential danger- shouting because if he didn’t, we would not listen and be saved…