The readings today are full of “surprises.” They offer a serious critique of the “tit for tat” kind of religion that places each seeker on some kind of “scale” to see if there is sufficient faith to allow this one into the kingdom. Sometimes organized religion seems to present to us a continuum that places a class of “privileged” at the head of the pack and suggests they would find divine admittance to the kingdom as some kind of right based on position instead of loving service.
I recall sharing with a congregation the painful experience of growing up in an alcoholic family. A man came up after the talk and said, ”I didn’t think that things like that happened to people like you!” It stunned me because I realized that we as preachers of the Gospel can present a façade of a personal life that seems to be “holier” and “more honourable” or free of humanity’s pain in comparison to the lives others have to walk.
All of us in places of leadership need to take to heart the warnings of Jesus in today’s Gospel about the kind of shepherding he expects from those who are in positions of power, authority and influence. He fully expects a shepherd’s heart to be full of compassion, understanding, gentle tolerance and loving acceptance. He expects that they should have the qualities mentioned by St. Paul in today’s reading to the Philippians.
“Faith” and “the garden” is the product of a loving gardener. True, honourable, just, commendable and loving leadership: these are the qualities of a shepherd the folks can trust to lead them to the kingdom. It does require self-sacrifice and the ability to put one’s own ego aside for the sake of those in one’s charge. It requires a self-awareness that allows us a freedom to be real and still strive to be holy.
Qualities of leadership are very much in the awareness of folks today, especially in the political arena. Is this leader operating out of real love and concern for their people? Or is their agenda based more on self-interest or self-aggrandizement?
To quote Richard Rohr in his book Immortal Diamond: “Many people have lost all interest in our grand spiritual talk and our Scriptures because they so often have been used by people who are themselves still small. . . . It does not help to deny that we are stuck and yet it does not help to stand arrogantly above it all either — as if we do not all share in the same great human crucifixion of reality, the one “world sorrow.”
When “we” is used more often than “you” in our leaders’ teaching and preaching, we include ourselves as redeemed sinners, so that others can more readily identify with us.
In an address to refugees and disabled young people at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Pope Francis had this reflection: “(Jesus) stooped down to us and by his love he restored our dignity and brought us salvation. Jesus’ humility never fails to move us, the fact that he bends down to wounded humanity in order to heal us: he bends down to heal all our wounds.”
Whether it’s a parent, teacher, politician, priest, or a clerk whose help you seek, real servant leadership will build trust and requires a solid foundation of humility, and a desire for human communion in order to produce healthy fruit in the garden of faith. Isaiah’s lament in today’s first reading displays a certain expectation God has that, if neglected, becomes a source of deep disappointment.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus too is confronting the chief priests and the elders of the community. The parable describes the rejection he must suffer. But it also describes a compromised leadership (the tenants) that fails to carry out the task of producing good fruit and sharing it with the landowner.
On the other side of surprises might be those who seem to lack any participation in, or connection with formal religion, but their belonging to and inclusion in the kingdom of Jesus is based on their willingness to put themselves aside for the sake of others. The great judgment scene in Matthew 25 is still a critical criterion for inclusion in the kingdom. Jesus reminds us that there is no greater love than that one would lay down their life for their friends.
There is another category of surprising people I would like to mention. These are former leaders who may have been pushed aside, deeply wounded by the injustice of others, and they somehow continue a spiritual journey outside the traffic place of organized religion. Some have found ministry that is more connected with institutional chaplaincy, like prisons, hospitals and long-term care homes. Some of these have simply burned out from a life of self-giving. Some have journeyed far as celibates and after falling in love have been unable to continue in a form of ministry that would accept them in a married state.
In our anticipation of Thanksgiving let us give thanks to God for all of the truly wonderful leaders/shepherds that have been sent our way. Our spiritual journey is usually scattered with gifted people who have been an inspiration to us, or a source of real consolation. The amazing thing is that God’s timing usually sends us these people just at the critical time we most need them. Let us remember to keep them in our prayers as they face the daunting task of leading God’s holy people through this life and into eternal life.
A song I wrote recently has this sentiment in mind: “But it’s the hope of a promise from Jesus’ own hand, of a many-roomed mansion our Father has planned. So we carve here today a life of bridges to cross, till we pass through the door that appears as a loss, and enter our Father’s homeland.”
Happy and blessed Thanksgiving everyone!
Williston gives parish missions and is a missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a songwriter and recording artist.