The recent deaths of Bishops Dom Helder Camara of Recifice, Brazil, and P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore force many of us religious leaders to reflect on how we exercise our ministry. Both men, stellar examples of Jesus among us, made their loving, pastoral ministry a sign of the dying and rising leader whom they so faithfully imitated.

The self-giving image these two bishops left us hasn't always been part of the 3,000-year biblical tradition. Our sacred writers often find faith leadership to be problematic. Though the authors of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures stress the value and necessity of good leaders, they almost always criticize the actual leaders with whom they come in contact.

Most disturbing is the writers' insight that no period of salvation history automatically guarantees good leaders. For instance, Malachi, the author of the first reading (Mal 1;14-:2, 8-10), knew many Israelites hoped, once the Babylonian Exile was over and they returned to their beloved Holy land, that their religious leaders would start to minister as Yahweh wanted them to minister.

Dream fades

The prophet eventually realizes that his people's dream isn't coming true. Leaders after the Exile are just as bad as leaders before the Exile. Both their teaching and their actions point Israel in the wrong direction.

"Now, O priests," Yahweh proclaims, "this commandment is for you....You have turned aside from the way and have caused many to falter by your instruction....You do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions."

The sacred authors expect leaders both to point "the way" and also to follow that way in their own lives.

In the Gospel (Mt 23:1-12), we hear that not even chronological closeness to Jesus' death and resurrection guarantees that leaders will carry out selfless ministry.

Though past homilists frequently used this part of Matthew 23 as a springboard to condemn the Jewish leaders of Jesus' day and age, today's Scripture scholars unanimously remind us that the evangelists intended gospel passages in which Jesus condemns the "scribes and Pharisees" to be gentle warnings against specific leadership tendencies in their own Christian communities.

BY the time Matthew writes -- in the late 70s or early 80s -- "scribes and Pharisees" no longer exercise leadership roles in his community. Matthew's problem isn't with the past; it's with the present. Some Christians are beginning to develop leadership styles counter to "the way" into which the historical Jesus had led His followers.

Bad leadership

Matthew believes such leaders are all talk and no action, good at tying up heavy burdens and laying them on people's shoulders. But they won't lift a finger to help carry them. Their ministry is nothing but show.

Even worse, the honorific titles -- rabbi and father -- which these leaders seem to be encouraging are setting the stage for a stratification of the Christian community. We can never blame Matthew's Jesus for the cleric/lay distinction which became a mainstay of the later Church. "You are all brothers (and sisters)," Jesus proclaims. "The greatest among you must be your servant."

Those who believe such an ideal form of leadership is impossible to implement, need only glance at the second reading (I Thes 2:7-9, 13). In this earliest of all Christian writings, Paul reminds his community of his leadership style: a style known for its gentleness and affection.

"We were determined," Paul writes, "to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well....working night and day in order not burden any of you, we proclaimed the Gospel of God."

But we really don't have to go back 2,000 years to surface images of true Christian leaders. We need only remember Dom Helder Camara and Frank Murphy.