SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Wis 1:1-7
; Ps 139:1-10
; Lk 17:1-6
It is never easy to assume leadership. Not only does it mean responsibility in undertaking our tasks and doing them well but it also involves personal integrity, conduct and an exemplary lifestyle. That is why Jesus warned His disciples, “obstacles are sure to come!” Indeed, in the book of Sirach, the author warns “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.” (Sir 2:1) Leaders are human beings and they too are tempted like anyone else. They too are fallen creatures. The author of the letter of Hebrews wrote, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” (Heb 5:1f)
For this reason, leaders must always be on the alert. Jesus warned the disciples, “Watch yourselves!” St Paul was conscious of the grave responsibility of leaders, especially the danger of causing scandals. He said, “We put no obstacle in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.” (2 Cor 6:3-8) For those leaders who cause scandals, Jesus’ judgment is severe when He said, “alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a milestone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones.”
How do leaders cause scandals? Who are the little ones in the gospel? They do not refer only to children who are easily impressionable but to the weak of society. Firstly, when he does not walk the talk. People expect teachers to live what they teach and preach. Many a parishioner lose faith in God when they discover that a priest or a lay leader is just the contrary of what he or she teaches. Indeed, those who live double lives cause those under them to lose faith both in them and subsequently in God. When they fail in their moral life, especially the sin of dishonesty and greed, they make people lose confidence in them.
Secondly, scandals are caused by leaders who are harsh and lacking sensitivity in dealing with people under their care. They might say or do something that appears to be lacking compassion and sensitivity to the feelings of others. When leaders are dictatorial and unreasonable, people lose respect for them. When leaders are indifferent to the pains and sufferings of those under their care, they feel that God does not care as well. Many are hurt by the callous attitude of priests and leaders with regard to their needs.
Thirdly, scandals are caused by leaders when they take advantage of their position to enrich themselves or make use of others under their care. That is why those in position of authority have to be careful that they do not use their position to take advantage of others, especially those who are weak and vulnerable. This is especially so in counselling and in the helping professions. We cannot use their vulnerability to satisfy our own personal needs. For this reason, professionalism in the office must always be upheld so that those who seek help will not be manipulated in any way, especially those young people under our charge.
Why do leaders cause scandals? Simply because leaders, as Jesus said, are not watchful of themselves. They are careless with regard to their spiritual life and personal growth in maturity. They are often blinded by their selfish desires and they are blind to the truth and to what is right and good. So consumed are they by their desire to possess, they become oblivious to what is right or wrong. This is what the author in the book of wisdom wrote, “But selfish intentions divorce from God; and Omnipotence, put to the test, confounds the foolish. No, Wisdom will never make its way into a crafty soul nor stay in a body that is in debt to sin; the holy spirit of instruction shuns deceit, it stands aloof from reckless purposes, is taken aback when iniquity appears.” Holiness and sin are not compatible. Either we welcome the Spirit of God into our lives and let Him control us or we seek to control and manipulate others.
What if these scandals take place? What must we do? Jesus said, “If your brother does something wrong, reprove him.” It is not wrong to correct leaders who have departed from the truth. But correction must be done out of charity, not of revenge or for one’s personal interests. The truth is that those who offer correction to those they perceive to have done wrong, do so because their vested interests are not met. When we correct a person out of anger, vindictiveness and seek to hurt and humiliate the offender, it does no one any good. The accused would only react defensively and seek to defend himself and his actions. So each must examine his or her motive if she or he wants to reprove the person who in our judgement has done something wrong. If the fraternal correction is done out of charity, sensitivity and humility for the good of the person and not for the sake of oneself, the person would be more receptive to the correction. Otherwise, the sin of presumption would be ours, because we do not have the full picture of the situation. By making wrong and distorted judgement on others, we would have committed injustice to our brothers and sisters. Instead of helping the situation, we cause more harm.
Secondly, if the person admits guilt and asks for forgiveness, we must pardon the person. Jesus said, “If he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.” Our leaders and superiors are human beings, and weak in handling some parts of their character. Every leader has both strengths and weaknesses. So we must be understanding and compassionate. We must be forgiving and tolerant of their human frailties and weaknesses. Most leaders are sincere and wish to serve the people but they are often blinded by their human weaknesses, such as insecurity, fear, anger and temptation to sin.
Finally, whether we are leaders or subordinates, we must have faith in God who is in charge of the situation. We should not allow scandals to make us lose faith in God or in the institution, imperfect as it may be. We must recognize that they too are sinners. As human beings we are weak in virtues. But we must have faith in God who writes straight in crooked lines. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) We should not take things into our own hands. God will know how to deal with scandalous leaders. The Church and this world is in the hands of God. With the apostles, we must say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Indeed, it is not how much faith we have that will determine our happiness but the quality of our faith. If our faith is sincere, humble, fervent and expectant, God will hear our prayers and He will put things right for us all. This is what the author of wisdom says, “let honesty prompt your thinking about the Lord, seek him in simplicity of heart; since he is to be found by those who do not put him to the test, he shows himself to those who do not distrust him.” This is the quality of faith needed for God to hear our prayers.
As for those who are leaders, we must endeavor to do the right thing and walk the way of the gospel. Let us take the words of the first reading to heart, “Love virtue, you who are judges on earth. Wisdom is a spirit, a friend to man, though she will not pardon the words of a blasphemer, since God sees into the innermost parts of him, truly observes his heart, and listens to his tongue. The Spirit of the Lord, indeed, fills the whole world, and that which holds all things together knows every word that is said.” If we seek the truth and guidance from the Lord, the Holy Spirit will lead us to live exemplary lives in leadership, one that inspires others and draws them closer to God because of their confidence in us. Let us listen to the wise advice of Sirach when he wrote, “Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity. Cleave to him and do not depart, that you may be honored at the end of your life. Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.” (Sir 2:2-6)
Indeed, may we remain strong in our faith, a faith that is tested and tried even when our leaders fail us. Our faith ultimately must rest in God. If we find good and exemplary leaders, we praise God. If they prove themselves to be unworthy, let us pray for them. As Jesus taught us in the gospel, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” (Mt 23:2f)