"FIRST IMPRESSIONS "

31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A) November 5, 2017

Malachi 1: 14b–2:2b, 8-10; Ps 131; 1 Thess. 2: 7b–9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

What has gotten God so riled up? The first reading, from the prophet Malachi, has an ominous tone. One is tempted to drop or skip over the reading, it sounds so fearsome. It seems to confirm people’s stereotype of an angry God ready to come down hard on people. Did you hear what God said through the prophet? "I will send a curse upon you…." "I, therefore have made you contemptible and base before all the people." However, a closer look at the reading might sway us to think that God is quite justified being so angry.

We are not sure who Malachi was, his name means "my messenger" in Hebrew. The emphasis isn’t on who the prophet was, but what he had to say. And what he says is very condemning, with reason. Malachi addresses the Word of God specifically to the priests, the religious leaders of the people.

Malachi wrote soon after the Israelites returned from exile, around the sixth century BCE. Remember that the Persian king, Cyrus, had not only freed the Israelites, but ordered the rebuilding of their Temple in Jerusalem. It was built, rededicated and made ready for worship. Though the Temple was dedicated to God, people were not. Their worship was perfunctory. Animals for sacrifice, which were supposed to be pure, to match the purity of the Temple and the integrity of the people, were often the least valuable, sick and maimed ones from the flocks and herds. The priests were supposed to lead the people in a pure worship of God, but they did not.

That is why Malachi is so upset in his indictment of Israel’s religious leaders. Because of their disregard the people, whom they were supposed to lead in God’s ways, had gone astray. "You have turned aside from the way and have caused many to falter by your instruction." The priests’ scandalous neglect of their holy mission resulted in a disintegrated community whose bonds with God were seriously weakened.

It’s difficult to read Malachi’s condemnation of the priests and their assistants in the Temple, the Levites. It stirs up a memory of a painful time in Israel’s history. But it also speaks to recent clerical scandals in our own church. Priests, who not only committed sexual sins and abuse of the young, were protected by some of the very bishops under whom they served. What would the mouthpiece of God, Malachi, say about all this?

The prophecy ends with a reminder and a call to acknowledge God as our Creator and loving Parent. Malachi also calls all of us to reform and put aside what separates us from God: halfhearted and perfunctory worship; indifference to the spiritual well-being of others who may be in our charge; any privilege for special treatment ordained, or lay, may feel is our due because of our status in the church community.

What is comforting to hear in this fiery prophet is the obvious passion of our God, who loves us so intensely, that God is moved to speak harshly to get our attention and call us to right ways and pure worship. All of us have some responsibility to lead and instruct others, especially the young, about our faith. In the light of God’s passionate outburst we must wake up and examine how well we are fulfilling our responsibilities and what kind of example we are setting for others.

In today’s gospel Jesus doesn’t confront the religious leaders, he does that elsewhere. Instead, he speaks a warning about them to the crowds and his disciples. Still, we can hear the same passion and intensity of Malachi in Jesus’ words. Like Malachi, he denounces the religious caste of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. They were the privileged ones who sat on the "chair of Moses" – positions of religious instruction and leadership. But their lives did not measure up to their teachings, so Jesus tells his hearers to listen to their teaching, but not to follow their example.

In his criticism Jesus even spells out two of the practices of the scribes and Pharisees. Their elaborate and detailed interpretation of the religious law put burdens on the people, which they did not follow themselves. Nor did they do anything to relieve the burden they put on people’s shoulders. They claimed the authority of their office, implying they spoke on God’s behalf, but the God they said they represented was harsh and demanding – not the God Jesus preached and showed by his acts of compassion and forgiveness.

Jesus also criticized their hypocrisy and love of praise. Just picture these self-satisfied men wearing larger-than-necessary religious ornamentation, which drew attention to their status and so-called devotion. Imagine them entering a festive meal, expecting the first places at table and walking through the market place greeted with deference by the "common folk." In the places of prayer, the synagogues, they also expected seats of honor, as if to say they were holier, intimates of God, because they sat up front close to the sacred scrolls.

Jesus eschews honorific titles among his followers. They were to consider themselves equal to one another, all sisters and brothers. He says similar things throughout the gospel. Remember, "The last shall be first and the first last." What would that mean in our own settings? How would those of us in roles of leadership practice our responsibilities to the community, without falling into a pharisaical mentality while we teach, sit up front and lead worship? "The greatest among you must be the servant."

We are not better than those Jesus condemns, we can’t congratulate ourselves for rising above the flaws of the religious folk who constantly confronted and challenged Jesus for not observing the customs they themselves ignored.

Jesus’ challenge to the leaders in the church is not only addressed to the ordained. More and more, in our parishes and diocesan offices, we see ministerial responsibility being fulfilled by the laity, which is appropriate since, by our baptism, we are identified priest, prophet and royalty. Whatever the form our leadership takes we carry within us the mantra of service Jesus has given us: "Whoever exalts self will be humbled, but whoever humbles self will be exalted."

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/110517.cfm