“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Luke 11:43-4

In the United States we are currently (although now it seems most of the time) in a political season. As we attend to those seeking the presidency, we find ourselves once again attempting to appraise who among those seeking office is truly capable of leadership as service to the nation. As we read Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees according to Luke, we can hear a stern warning about the kind of ambition in all of us that would make us poor leaders, and so, by contrast, what makes for a true leader in gospel terms.

One thing that characterizes not only every political candidate for high office but each of us in our desire and need to be recognized is ambition. Ambition is not a negative disposition; it is the much needed energy of the functional dimension of our personalities. The issue with ambition is whether or not we employ it in service of our cultural and vital dimensions or of our transcendent dimension. Is it in service of our need for recognition or is it in service to God’s call to serve with the unique mission that is ours?

There’s an oft-quoted political maxim that goes: “It is important to know if a person is seeking office in order to do something or to be someone.” Luke has Jesus point out to the Pharisees how they are leaders in order to be someone, in service of their own need for recognition and respect. One can picture them and their self-inflation as they take the most important seats in the synagogue and are greeted so respectfully in the marketplaces. One cannot help but be reminded how for so long the clergy were revered, even as they exercised control over the most significant and personal aspects of their parishioners’ lives. There is little doubt that at the pre-transcendent or spiritual level of our personalities the “will to power” is very real. To have others submit to us, bow before us, revere us as more significant than they is a heady experience for anyone.

When our lives, however, are dominated by this drive for recognition and need for power, we, says Jesus, are “like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” That is, we are not real and alive at all. It is not the actual person we are that is being so revered and honored. It is the ghost of ourselves that we have created. Our true selves remain hidden, anonymous, and even walked over. The more we are reliant on our “office,” the more our actual selves atrophy. In time it is possible that we shall no longer realize the distinction between our public and our private identities. So, perhaps our current president actually believes that he has “great and unmatched wisdom,” and that some members of the clergy actually believe that they are, above others, the image of Christ in the world. Self-aggrandizement requires a great degree of dissociation from our real selves, our actual life experience. This dissociation means that who we actually are is buried in an unmarked grave and, for all our public notice, remains unknown and unrecognized by all.

But I too must recognize my own ambition to be someone in the eyes of others, and not only to be someone but to stand out, to be significant and, at times, to be more significant than others. There is a good bit of the Pharisee built into each of us, and it comes to the fore when our ambition becomes dissociated from our unique life call. Adrian van Kaam says that “our limits are the outlines of our call.” That is, to live in the truth of who we are, and so to fulfill our unique mission in the world, we must live within and in full awareness of our limits. For, it is by living within those limits and thus continually appropriating anew our unique call and mission in life that we will fulfill that call by doing the work God has given us alone to do. This is the person who takes on any task or role not to be someone, for she or he already is someone who is limited but beloved of God, but to do something.  

We often quote the author of The Cloud of Unknowing who teaches that there is “one impulse of grace for each atom of time.” Historically singular events occur when there is a congruence between the world’s need and the gifts of a person. So, we think of Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at the times of their countries’ liberation. We consider Rosa Parks at the birth of the American civil rights movement and Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila at unique moments in the history of the Church. Each of these and so many other persons are remembered as those who were capable of responding to what the times required. And this response to the impulse of grace of the moment did not exclude their weaknesses and limits. Lincoln, as Churchill and so many others revered as great, suffered from depression. Teresa of Avila was both seriously physically, and some say mentally, ill. Yet, each was able to do what the moment called for and required of them. They did not use their limits as an excuse for inaction; they acted undeterred by the fear of error and failure. What enables this is focus on the task rather than on oneself. It is to realize that we are in the world primarily to do something, to carry out God’s beneficent will for all. We are not here for esteem and recognition.

To do, to act in this way is not merely a case of being busy without reflection. As Jesus tells Martha, “Only one thing is necessary.” We are “like unmarked graves” when, no matter how busy we are, we are not doing the one thing that is necessary for us. And, as Mary realizes, we know what that one thing is by living in presence to Jesus. To emphasize the call to do what we must is not to suggest that knowing what we are to do is easily recognizable for us. For example, it is not unusual that what is ours to do is not something that our local or larger cultures particularly value. It is not necessarily something that will give us recognition and respect. In fact, in Jesus’ case and that of so many others, it can be punishable by death. Appraisal of our call is difficult because we are so strongly influenced by our time and our culture. In our culture it is corporatists and financiers who are most respected and powerful. So, in the 90’s the vast majority of young people heading to college wanted to study finance and management. We know well the story of how 22 year olds right out of the Ivy League were expecting to make six figure salaries immediately. Even as that was occurring, I would often ask myself who among them might have been the extraordinary teacher, or public servant, or inspired artist or musician?

All political entities, great and small, can, as individuals, live a kind of “repetition compulsion.”  Being largely governed by both conscious and unconscious cultural norms, we tend to elect those who best represent those norms. Similarly, we tend to appraise our own call in light of them. Another way of putting this is that we tend to keep the same groups at the center and continue to marginalize those who do not belong. Just as we tend to appraise our own value in light of the culturally valued norms and marginalize what in us does not conform. Yet, the gospel is always reminding us that the life is not at the center but on the margins. What most uniquely needs to be done, individually and communally, is not done because we marginalize in ourselves and the group who and what could be the source of that originality. In today’s gospel Luke has Jesus tell us that to keep living, leading, and acting out of the ambition that responds to the cultural (local and global) pulsations alone is to opt for the unmarked grave. The one thing most often necessary is that very thing in us and in our culture that is unrecognized, unappreciated, and so inhibited.

When Jesus says that one thing is necessary, he is reminding us of the central responsibility of human life from the point of view of faith. It is that we are a unique and repeatable task, assignment, and mysterious call. We are responsible to God and to the world for the living out and fulfilling of that task. We are not called to do someone else’s work, to be someone whom we are not. The world needs only this “one thing” from us. To know that thing requires that we live, as Mary, in the presence of Jesus. This is true personally but also communally. We recognize the call in prayer and in true, honest, open, and loving relationship with each other. In this sense, our action, our mission, is the expression of our contemplation. These are not separate stances but integrally one. As Jesus says, “I do only what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19).

Underlying the specifics of Luke’s version, in addition, we detect a central understanding of leadership as service which in his eyes the Pharisees and lawyers have failed. Seeking first places in synagogues and greetings in the market places are only the most obvious symptoms of an attitude of self-aggrandizement. They have taken the key of knowledge, and keep others from entering. Their concern for the minutiae of tithing leads to neglect of the purpose of tithing, the care of the needy (Deut 14:22-29). More strikingly, their concern for outward purity hides a deep rapaciousness within. The “love of God” should lead them to the doing of “justice” by sharing their possessions with others.

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 192

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