Rulers, Chiefs, Prophets and Teachers – A Sermon for Nov. 1

Texts: Micah 3:5-12 & Matthew 23:1-12

Let’s begin by hearing a bit more from the prophet Micah. I warn you, these lines from the beginning of chapter three, are a bit macabre: “Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron.”

These words of Micah paint a dark picture of the social reality into which the prophet spoke. The problem, in large part at least, lay with self-serving leadership. Self-serving leadership is a misuse (sometime abuse) of power. Earlier in the oracle, Micah tells us the leaders plotted and carried out wickedness because they have the power to do so. He gives on specific example:  The leaders “covet fields, and then seize them; houses, and take them away.”

As much as the Bible is an ancient book, it is also a contemporary book. One of the major questions of our time is the question of what we should expect from leaders. In the week to come an election will take place in one of the world’s great imperial powers. It will have global consequences. In the week just past some of us learned of yet another instance of pastoral misconduct within our wider church network.

Leaders can inspire us. One of the people I’ve enjoyed learning about recently is a Kenyan woman named Wangari Maathai. She died in 2011. Wangari was a scientist, a social entrepreneur, an environmentalist and eventually an MP in the Kenyan parliament. Here’s just a bit of her inspiring story. It shows us what leaders can be.

Wangari completed a PhD in veterinary anatomy in 1971. In 1976 she became the first woman to chair that department at the University of Nairobi. At the same time Wangari began to look for ways to assist the women in her country. Though she had personally reached an impressive level of success, she was concerned for the wellbeing of others.

She observed that her people, the women in particular, needed clean water, income, and, in many places, firewood. So Wangari began recruiting women to plant trees across the country, trees to reverse the unsustainable deforestation that was occurring and to protect the livelihoods of families. This effort grew into one of the largest ecosystem protection movements in the world, the Green Belt Movement. Chapters of this organization have planted multiples of millions of trees. It’s a popular concept now, but wasn’t so much when Wangari began her work.

In the late in 1990s Wangari brought attention to the way high level politicians in her country were giving public lands to their friends and supporters. She organized a hunger strike for the release of political prisoners. She endured beatings and unjust imprisonment. In 2004 Wangari was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

We need leaders. We need leaders like Wangari Maathai who can make things happen. But what we shouldn’t miss is the fact that most of us have leadership roles in one context or another. Many of us lead households or classrooms. Many of us set the tone for a group of friends or an extended family. Many of us have influence over the way money is spent. So when we ask the question “What should we expect from our leaders?” we are also asking a question about our expectations of ourselves.

In addition to our Old Testament reading today, the passage from the gospel of Matthew also deals with matters of leadership and the misuse of power. Jesus had quite a lot to say about this.

So, what should we expect from leaders? What should we expect from ourselves in situations where we have influence?

Well, the first and most obvious thing is this: we should expect that leaders seek the wellbeing of others. Good leaders care for others as they care for themselves. Another way to say it is that good leaders are servant leaders. Jesus certainly modeled this. Remember when he washed the feet of his students? Remember how he wasn’t only interested in networking with those who could benefit him?   

Our antenna should go up, and we should be cautious, whenever we see people with power who are consumed with advancing their own interests. This can be hard to discern. But when it is true, the situation is dangerous indeed.

In our reading from Micah we read that there were prophets who were willing to sell their influence. They would say whatever the powerful wanted to hear or have others hear—for the right price. They privileged their own interests over truth. The leaders that Micah denounced were even willing to corrupt the justice system. Judgements were given for a “bribe.”

In the Matthew passage, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were more interested in their own reputations as leaders and teachers than in actually providing helpful, life-giving instruction.

We should expect leaders to seek the wellbeing of those they serve and others who are within their sphere of influence. I see no reason to think that this expectation should be limited to private settings or churchy contexts. We are always right to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable to this metric.

Here’s a second thing: we should expect leaders to identify transgression and injustice. In Micah the influential voices were saying that everything was peaceful. What was actually happening was that those in power were getting what they wanted while others starved. The inequity of the situation was masked because the imbalance of power was so severe. There might not have been chaos, but there was not true peace. Good leadership cares about equity more than good PR. It’s true in our homes and it’s true in our companies.

We should expect that leaders will deal with injustice and serious moral transgression and not paper it over. We can’t make every situation perfect, we can’t eliminate all pain, but we shouldn’t be complicit in papering over inequity.

A third thing: we should expect our leaders not to pass off the hard tasks. Jesus points out that some of the Pharisees asked people to do things that they, the cultural leaders, were unwilling to do themselves. Good leaders are willing to put in the work, act with integrity and support others.

A fourth thing: we should expect leaders to have a strong sense of priorities. Good leaders know what is really valuable, what’s worth our effort. Ashlee Vance has written a fascinating book on the history of two groundbreaking companies: Tesla and SpaceX. These companies are both led by a Canadian with family roots in Manitoba—well, sorta. At their best these companies have been successful because they know their mission and they aren’t distracted. At their worst these companies, and many like them, have failed to allow employees to have substantial non-work priorities. Wealth, the priority of leaders in Micah’s context, and honor or fame, the priority of leaders in Jesus’ context, can’t stand alone. These things are too shallow. We can expect that our leaders can explain how the work we do meets a genuine need—a human need, an earthkeeping need.  

A fifth and final thing is more relevant to churchy situations: we should expect leaders to be careful about claiming God’s endorsement. That is, good leaders will not invoke God’s name without great care. In Micah 3:11 we read that the leaders said, “Surely God is with us! No harm will come to us.”

God was not with them. God required repentance. Destruction was on their doorstep. They invoked God for their own ends. We can expect our leaders to be very, very careful in using the “This is what God says,” or “This is what God wants,” rationale. Simply mentioning God or the Bible is not sufficient to demand our allegiance.   

These five things, gleaned from our Old Testament and Gospel readings all have their inverse. We should be wary of leaders who are:

  • consumed with their own interests,
  • infatuated with their reputation,
  • ask others to do things they will not,
  • unable to maintain sound priorities,
  • and irresponsible in claiming God’s endorsement.

At the end of our reading from Micah we read that the consequence of the failure in leadership would be that Zion would be turned over like plowed soil and that Jerusalem would become a heap of ruins. Leadership failure invites ruin. This is true in our households, in our church, in our places of work, in our schools, and in our political institutions. This is true in our own exercise of leadership and in settings where we serve under the leadership of others.

What biblical persons like Jesus and Micah did, what laudable contemporary figures like Wangari Maathai did as well, is use their positions of influence to both support good leadership and to hold self-serving leadership accountable. All of us have some level of influence. This is both a grace and a responsibility: a gift and a calling.  

May God’s Spirit guide us as we lead and as we follow. Amen.  

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