Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
"I am not a role model!" declared Charles Barkley, professional basketball player for the Chicago Bulls. I don't follow professional sports but I had heard of Barkley as a particularly rough character: talented, aggressive and foul-mouthed. As I understand he was the captain at a time when every winning team was built around a super-star. With his statement he acknowledged he is a role model, like it or not; and young athletes do emulate his attitudes and behavior .
Human beings are not like owls or many male felines, solitary predators which avoid society. We herd like cows, flock like sheep and pack like wolves. We watch each other to determine which way we'll go and how we'll behave.
As religious persons, we look for successful patterns in our community. Parents, relatives, teachers, ministers and priests shape our thinking and open pathways we readily follow. Catholics even memorize prayers both personal and liturgical, along with all the gestures and postures. When I conduct a funeral I watch closely to see how many people will make the Sign of the Cross with me. Their response tells me what to expect for the next forty-five minutes. Some congregations need a lot of coaching; others move like graceful dance partners. Our prayer, even in private, is always shared and communal.
By the time Saint Matthew's Gospel appeared the Church already had much experience of corrupt, inept and foolish leadership. No matter how how hard we try to select, train and ordain our leaders, there will be trouble. Checks and balances become unchecked and unbalanced because we make those kinds of choices; we cannot escape our human nature. Saint Paul's letters tell us much about "Judaizers" and "super apostles." Saint Luke, although he usually accentuates the positive, tells us of simony and duplicity. The Pharisaic tradition could not be excised from the early church; egotism, avarice, anxiety and scrupulosity still accompany the Gospel. And so Matthew's Jesus instructs the struggling faithful, "...do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example."
As faithful people we look to our leaders for instruction and example, but we should also pray for them because we know they are fallible human beings who might mislead us. We don't want to cultivate distrust or suspicion, but neither do we want to be naive or gullible. We see the shortcomings of our leadership just as clearly as we see our own. We hope they utilize the Sacrament of Penance as readily as we do; and perhaps, more so.
Saint Paul often asked his people for supporting prayers as he traveled, suffered tribulations and addressed unknown people. On one occasion he relied on the Galatians to nurse him back to health, though they hardly knew him. We consider him saved but he expressed anxiety for his personal salvation in 1 Corinthians 9:
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadow boxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
We're on the same team; we're in this together. Whether we like it or not, we're role models for each other: priests for their congregations and congregations for their priests.