The lifestyle of the scribes and Pharisees described by Jesus in today’s Gospel stands in stark contrast to way of a servant – that is, the way of Jesus himself, who came to serve not to be served, and the way of his followers.

The scribes and Pharisees strive for power, popularity, and a place of importance. A servant is hidden, humble, and unseen by most. The scribes and Pharisees want recognition: “All their works are performed to be seen.” A good servant does his work humbly, without fanfare. The scribes and Pharisees enjoy the power they have when they “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” A servant has no power because he is no one’s superior. The scribes and Pharisees, concerned about their religious public image, “widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” A servant is not pre-occupied with what he wears and how he looks. The scribes and Pharisees love the feeling of self-importance they experience when they sit in places of honor at banquets, whereas a servant sits where he is placed and does not expect anything more. The scribes and Pharisees enjoy popularity and being greeted in marketplaces. A servant is at peace with not being noticed.

Jesus affirms the legitimate authority of the scribes and Pharisees because they sit “on the chair of Moses,” but he explicitly tells us, “Do not follow their example.” Do not strive for power, recognition, popularity, or exalted social status. None of these advances the Kingdom of God. The attitude of entitlement turns everything into a means of serving only ourselves, with no concern for benefitting others, much less serving God and giving him glory!

The Psalmist gives us wise advice for countering our tendency to follow the way of the Pharisees: “O LORD, my heart is not proud, / nor are my eyes haughty; / I busy not myself with great things, / nor with things too sublime for me.” Our soul will be at peace when we do what God asks of us, according to our state in life, in a humble and quiet way. This attitude puts our lives in proper order. A life of humble service, guided by prayer, strengthened by the Sacraments, is what enables us to live out our vocation fruitfully and advance the Kingdom of God.

Today, with social media at everyone’s fingertips, we are witnessing an endless modern replay of the self-glorification trap in which the scribes and Pharisees were caught. Popularity is everything; humble service means nothing. What is of greatest value is the quality of the reactions we get and the number of “likes” for every item we post. The impression this gives is that a person’s worth is entirely determined by the response of his or her social media followers. Jesus, however, teaches a radical departure from the ways of the world. Through the grace of God we are given the supernatural understanding and ability to want just the opposite of what the world tells us is important. Jesus makes it absolutely clear what this radical view of ourselves and others must be: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” His words show us that true greatness depends on one’s willingness to serve others. The virtue of humility was clearly missing in the scribes and Pharisees, and it is missing just as much in our culture today. Yet, humility is absolutely necessary if we are to truly love and follow Christ.

We have so many beautiful examples of humble servants in the saints of the Catholic Church! It is a virtue present in each of them who so selflessly served God and his people. St. Paul is a striking example of Jesus’ teaching that “the greatest among you must be your servant.” In the second reading, Paul shares with the Christian community of Thessalonica his sincere and pure motives in proclaiming the word of God to them. He wants them to be confident of the great care and concern he has for them. He also wants them to know that he is constantly thanking God that they have received his message, “not as a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” Paul has no expectation that he should be given any credit for bringing them the Gospel; his only concern is that God is to be praised. He ministers to others from a deep understanding that his identity is in Jesus, and that everything he does is as a humble and grateful servant of God.

St. Paul’s spirit of service is contrasted with the wickedness of the priests of Jerusalem, whom the prophet Malachi is sent to correct. The priests have been cheating God, taking to themselves the honor that belongs only to him, thinking that God would not notice. Malachi tells them otherwise, and gives them severe words of God’s condemnation for their actions. As in the Gospel, we see that those who are in positions of authority are held to the highest standards to lead God’s people righteously. When they refuse to follow God, and purposely deceive, cheat, and “turn aside from the way,” they cause great harm to those who are in their care. The prophet tells them that there will be severe consequences because they have “made void the covenant of Levi.”

Again and again, we see that when we choose to turn our back on God, we risk everything. When we abdicate our responsibility to be Christian examples to others, we risk everything. When pride rather than humility drives our thoughts and actions, we risk everything. Jesus gives us the antidote to save ourselves from these sinful ways. Jesus is the antidote. He shows us the way to be and the way to go through life. It is the way of service and humility: the Way of Jesus.

Why do I prefer to be known and accepted and not to be hidden and little? How can a quiet and humble life enable me to live a fruitful and peaceful life? What are the consequences on myself and others when I deviate from God’s law?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.