In today’s gospel, Jesus and the early Christian Church teach us something about hierarchy. Jesus opens the discussion by using the scribes and Pharisees as examples. Both groups were composed of specialists. The scribes weren’t only among the few who could read and write, they were also people who spent their lives studying the Law and the Prophets in excruciating detail. They were the Scripture scholars of their day and experts both in reading and in interpreting the Hebrew texts. The Pharisees were those who determined how those Scriptures—particularly the Torah, the Law of Moses—would be applied to daily living. They were, in effect, the judges, juries, and executioners of the Law. If you had a question about whether something was permitted by the Law or not or whether something was clean or unclean, you went to consult the Pharisees. We see this happening many times in the course of Jesus’s public ministry as he discusses with the Pharisees questions about keeping the Sabbath or about ritual purity.
Both the scribes and the Pharisees were specialists in the Torah. Jesus acknowledged that. He himself used to ask the Pharisees whether some action of his would be permitted or not. In fact, Jesus must have studied under the Scribes and Pharisees as a boy. Didn’t we see him in the temple discussing the Scriptures with the teachers of the Law and asking them questions? [Luke 2:46] Later on, he often played the same role as the scribes and Pharisees, fielding questions about the Scriptures from the crowds, from his disciples, and even from the scribes and Pharisees themselves. Just the fact that Jesus had disciples tells us something important about his position and status in Israel. He was often addressed as “rabbi”—meaning “my master,”—and as “teacher.” That means that he, too, was an acknowledged expert in the Scriptures.
What does he tell the crowds and his disciples in this gospel passage? He tells them to follow the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, but not their examples. If we look at Jesus’s criticism of the religious leaders of his day, we can learn a great deal about the attitudes that Jesus wanted us—his followers—to have toward the practice of our faith. He leveled two criticisms at the scribes and Pharisees: hypocrisy and vanity, which, as we shall see, are two sides of the same coin. Evidently, the scribes and the Pharisees considered themselves to be too good to have to conform to the rules that applied to the “masses”—the common people.
Let’s consider that attitude. Don’t think that it only applies to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’s day. As soon as we find ourselves saying, “I’m not like those people,” we’ve immediately joined them. You see, the attitude that Jesus is preaching against in the gospel is common to us all. In fact, it’s part of our human condition. It shows up in our desire to “better ourselves,” to “come up in the world,” to “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps,” or to “improve our lot in life.” I could go on and on. But don’t get me wrong—neither Jesus nor I are against human growth and development. What Jesus was objecting to was our human tendency to impose a hierarchy onto humanity. This artificial hierarchy is based principally on three factors: wealth, power, and prestige.
Wealth suggests that a person’s quality is directly proportional to their material acquisitions. We use an artificial scale to evaluate these possessions. Wealthy people live in better houses in better neighborhoods. They have better jobs, drive better cars, make better investments, go to better schools, get better healthcare, have better furniture and appliances, and hire better help. In this case, “better” means bigger, more elaborate, more efficient and effective, and therefore more expensive. Just about all of us want to attain these things, and we develop a sense of self-satisfaction when we have them, and maybe we even feel a little sorry for those who don’t.
Often, wealth comes with a sense of power. After all, it’s the wealthy who hire others and determine what work they’ll be doing. Power is having authority over other people to get them to do what we want done. Power gives one the ability to determine the living conditions of others. It gives one the capacity to determine who gets the wealth, who gets to keep it, and who doesn’t. It also provides the capacity to delegate power and responsibility to others, and even to determine who becomes powerful and who doesn’t. Power demands obedience from others and meets out punishment for disobedience.
That’s not all. Wealth and power command deference. That, in a word, is prestige. Prestige demands recognition and preferential treatment, so it requires that a person display the trappings of their wealth and power. Fancy dress, uniforms, jewelry, and titles are all symbols of prestige. Prestige implies privilege. Here’s what “privilege” really means: it comes from the Latin meaning “a private law.” In other words, the privileged person is a law unto themselves, and the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them.
The assumption is that people of wealth, power, and prestige are somehow better and more worthy of their status than others. That’s what Jesus is refuting in today’s gospel. He denies the existence of this artificial hierarchy and the false value system that underlies it. The whole system is based on the false premise that some are more valuable than others because of who they are. It ignores the fact that all of us are who we are merely by accident of birth and genetics—things over which none of us has control. Everything we are and everything we have is gift. That means everything. We deserve nothing more than any of our fellow humans. We are all debtors to the grace of God. There is no hierarchy before God. No one is better or worse than another by virtue of their status.
The only hierarchy that exists in real life is a hierarchy of love. Whoever puts her- or himself most genuinely in service of God and neighbor is greatest in the reign of God, regardless of other’s estimation. Each person we meet is another self. When we’re tempted to feel pity for another, we need always to remember that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Any arrogance based on our supposed wealth, power, and prestige is an insult to God both because it shows our ingratitude for all that we have received, and it’s idolatry, pretending that we ourselves are somehow the source of our own blessings. None of it—none of the wealth, power, and prestige we enjoy—is ours. All of it is just on loan to us, and someday we’ll have to give it all back. Not only that but we’ll be asked to give an account of what love we showed with it while we had it. That, in the end, is all that matters.