Nov 5, 2017: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.
And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?

The book of Malachi gets its name not from the author, who is unknown, but from the opening words of the book: “An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi.” Malachi is a Hebrew word meaning “my messenger.”

The book, which dates to 500-450 BC, was addressed to those who were living in the holy land after the Babylonian exile.

In today’s reading, the author is addressing a problem similar to the problem that Jesus addresses in the gospel reading. Those who have legitimate religious authority, in this case the priests, are abusing it.

A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.

The prophecy opens with a divine self-identification. This is based on God’s universal kingship, transcending the borders of Israel.

“LORD of hosts” evokes military imagery; hosts (tsâbâ’) are army divisions. When used in the title for God, it usually refers to a vast company of celestial warriors. It calls to mind the cosmic war that God waged against evil, the battle in which God was victorious (see Psalm 24:9-11). The title was also used of God during wars against other nations, when God was believed to be the commander of the army of Israel (2 Samuel 5:10).

These feats would certainly inspire reverential fear.

And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, and if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you 

The commandment (miswâ) given the priests is expressed as a threat. If they do not reform their lives and thereby give glory to God’s name, they will suffer the curse of God.

and of your blessing I will make a curse.

The blessings referred to could be the riches they had been able to accrue during the time they served as priests, the benedictions they had pronounced when officiating in the priestly role, or their original commission to the priesthood. If the latter, it would seem that what was initially a privilege has, because of their sinfulness, become a curse.

You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; 

God issues a searing denunciation of them, not only for defiling the office of priesthood but also for leading the people astray with faulty teaching.

you have made void the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts. 

Their infidelity is particularly heinous because of the privileged position priests enjoyed in the community. With the exception of the Davidic kings, no other group within the nation of Israel could claim a special covenant relationship with God (see Numbers 25:10-13). Furthermore, their lives were circumscribed by matters of holiness (Leviticus 21:6), and they were the ones who interpreted the Law for the people (Deuteronomy 17:8-11).

I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, 

In addition to the curse, the priests will be shamed before the people, a fate considered by some in the culture of ancient Israel to be worse than death itself.

since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions.

Besides misdirecting the people, the priests were also corrupt.

Have we not all the one Father? Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break faith with each other, violating the covenant of our fathers?

The speaker changes in this last verse. Presumably it is the prophet himself who now speaks, appealing to community solidarity by reminding the priests that all come from the same Creator and all the people of the covenant claim the same ancestors. This is reason enough to keep faith with one another.

We aren’t told whether the priests took this condemnation to heart and reformed their lives. For us, it serves as a reminder that privileged positions within the community come with serious responsibilities. Failure to fulfill these responsibilities will be met with profound consequences.

2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13

Brothers and sisters:
We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly,
that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us,
you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe.

This week we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Paul continues to give thanks to God for the way in which the Thessalonians have received and are living the good news of the gospel. In doing so, he models the kind of religious leader that Jesus taught his disciples to be: a servant leader.

Brothers and sisters: We were gentle among you, 

We = Paul and his missionary companions, Sylvanus and Timothy.

as a nursing mother cares for her children.

Paul uses the metaphor of a nursing mother to provide a glimpse into the deep affection with which these missionaries hold their converts.

With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.

The metaphor of a nursing mother also characterizes the apostolic self-giving of which Paul speaks. A woman’s love for her child prompts her to give that child both what she has and literally what she is: the child was first fashioned of her very substance and is now nourished from her body.

Analogously, the missionaries have wholeheartedly shared the gospel with the Christians and have given of their very selves. Both the mother and the missionary give with no thought of receiving anything in return, other than the satisfaction of having given themselves out of love.

“While Scripture is spiritual in itself, nonetheless it often, so to say, adapts itself to carnal, materialistic people in a carnal, materialistic way. But it doesn’t want them to remain carnal and materialistic. A mother, too, loves to nurse her infant, but she doesn’t love it so that it will always remain a baby. She holds it in her bosom, she cuddles it with her hands, she comforts it with caresses, she feeds it with her milk. She does all this for the baby, but she wants it to grow, so that she won’t be doing this sort of thing forever. Now look at the apostle. We can fix our eyes on him all the more suitably because he wasn’t above calling himself a mother. He writes ‘I became like a baby in your midst, like a nurse fondling her children.’ There are of course nurses who fondle babies that are not their own children. And on the other hand there are mothers who give their children to nurses and don’t fondle them themselves. The apostle, however, full of genuine, juicy feelings of love, takes on the role both of nurse when he says ‘fondling’ and of mother when he completes it with ‘her children.’” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (between A.D. 391-430), Sermons 305a,5]

You recall, brothers, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

Caring for the physical needs of traveling preachers seems to have been the custom of the day (Luke 10:7), thus Paul and his companions would have been within their rights to expect hospitality from their converts. However, they chose to forego this prerogative. They worked at their respective trades (Acts 18:3) earning their own keep, being a financial burden to no one.

This allowed them to proclaim the gospel as they saw fit, asking for nothing in return.

And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

The passage ends on a note of gratitude. The recompense the missionaries receive for their ministry is the religious maturity of their converts, and for this they are grateful to God. Though new to the faith, the Thessalonians accepted the gospel for what it was, the word of God, not the words of the men who delivered it.

In other places, Paul may have had to argue that his preaching was not a fabrication of his own making (Galatians 1:11-12), but not here. The gospel has taken root in the minds and hearts of these converts, and it is already producing fruit.

Gospel – Matthew 22:34-40

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Addressing the crowds and his disciples, in this week’s gospel reading Jesus issues a scathing denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees.

All of the controversies that we have been reading over the last few weeks are part of Matthew’s narrative leading up to Jesus’ fifth major discourse on the end times, which we will begin reading next week.

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.

Jesus sums up his thoughts on the scribes and Pharisees as a conclusion to his various debates with them.

The “chair of Moses” could be a reference to the honorary chair set up in the synagogue in which sat the chief interpreter of the Law, or it could simply refer to the position they held as the legitimate successors of Moses.

Hebrew tradition, not recorded in the Old Testament, holds that the interpretation of the Law was carried on through an unbroken chain of scribes all the way back to Moses. Similarly, we speak of the Pope as teaching from the “chair of Peter.”

Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.

While Jesus recognizes the authenticity of their office, he criticizes them for the disparity that exists between what they teach and how they live. This disparity is evidence of the duplicity of their lives.

Jesus counsels the audience: “Do as they say, not as they do.”

They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.

Out of their devotion to the Law, the Pharisees develop a vast array of detailed minor rules, referred to as the “fence around the Law,” meant to ensure obedience to the commandments. This collection of rules, which eventually reached 613 in number, came to be a heavy burden for the people to carry, and the scribes and the Pharisees did nothing to alleviate this onus.

Contrasts this with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

All their works are performed to be seen.

The scribes and Phariees have become self-important. Their actions are designed to attract public honor and attention. See Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18 for Jesus’ contrasting teaching: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them…”

They widen their phylacteries

Devout men scrupulously adhered to the admonition in Deuteronomy 6:8 to bind the Scriptures on their hands and foreheads. This led to the practice of places scriptural passages in small leather boxes called “phylacteries” and binding them on their foreheads and upper left arms, as a way to observe this admonition literally.

and lengthen their tassels.

Tassels with blue cord were attached to the four corners of the outer garment, in observance of Numbers 15:38-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.

The width of the phylacteries and the length of the tassels came to reflect the magnitude of the wearer’s devotion.

They love places of honor at banquets, 

In addition to the outward displays like wide phylacteries and lengthy tassels, the Pharisees and scribes sought other ways to be treated with deference and enjoy privilege. At banquets, they coveted the places of the honored guests who flanked the host, the most honored sitting at the right, the second most honored at the left.

See Luke 14:7-11 for Jesus’ contrasting teaching: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor…”

seats of honor in synagogues,

In the synagogue, the congregation sat on benches facing the chest that contained the sacred scrolls. The Pharisees sat in the front benches, which were the most important seats.

greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’

In public settings, it was customary for those of inferior station to salute the more important members of society — and the more important the person, the more elaborate the salutation. The scribes and Pharisees loved ostentatious greetings.

“Rabbi” means, literally, “my great one.” The title had only recently come into use as a technical term for an authorized Jewish teacher-sage.

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all
brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah.

Jesus declares that such pomposity should have no place among his followers. His is to be community of equals, and so his followers must shun any titles that implied status.

The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The passage concludes with a reversal of fortunes, the kind of shocking statement so characteristic of Jesus’ teachings. Rather than seeing themselves as wielding power and authority over others, even if they have legitimate power and authority, they must regard themselves as servants, that is, acting for the other’s good.

Those who exalt themselves now will experience eschatological humiliation; those who humble themselves now will enjoy eschatological exaltation.

Connections and Themes

The quality of a community and the depth of its love are often determined by the character of its leadership. As we approached the end of the liturgical year, the readings invite us to examine the character of leadership in the community of believers.

Leadership roles. Since Vatican II, the responsibilities of leadership have been spread throughout the community in various ways. This has not happened simply because there are fewer and fewer priests and religious to do the work, although the shortage is keenly felt. Rather, it has occurred primarily because the council itself insisted that by virtue of their baptism, all Christians are called to discipleship, and this includes active participation in the mission of the church. While those who are ordained continue in specialized forms of leadership, other people have stepped forward to assume their newly recognized responsibilities. And sometimes those people have more influence in the church than do the ordained. Leadership is no longer the exclusive domain of priests and bishops.

Post-Vatican parishes are more often than not administered by a parish staff consisting of the pastor, pastoral associates, principals of schools, liturgical leaders, directors of religious education, ministers of the sick, and youth ministers, to name a few. Important decisions can no longer be made without the involvement of the parish council. All of these people set the tone of the parish. In a very real sense, they are leaders. What kind of leaders are they? Are we?

Hypocritical leaders. It is from Jesus’ description of the Pharisees in today’s reading that we derive the connection between pharisaical and hypocritical. His condemnation of them, along with the condemnation of priests in the first reading, should be a warning to all of us who in any way exercise leadership. We must always be on guard, lest we become ensnared by the trappings of leadership and fail in our covenantal responsibilities toward God and the community we serve. We can become satisfied with externals: buildings completed, lessons taught, or liturgies performed; we can aspire to places of honor and invitations to events where we can associate with important people; we can look for recognition and praise. Even worse than these signs of vanity, we can use our positions of trust to exploit others, whether their resources, their emotions, or their physical persons. Unfortunately, all this can be done under the guise of “what is best for the community.”

Authors of life. There is another mode of leadership, one that is faithful to the very meaning of authority. It is a way of leadership that authors life. Paul’s striking image of a nursing mother who both gives and sustains life characterizes such leadership. It flows from the love we must have for one another; it does not impose heavy burdens on others. This kind of leadership is both strong and gentle: it is strong in its commitment to the gospel and it is gentle in its consideration of others. Those who exercise leadership in this way will fashion a community where life is fostered, not stifled; where talents serve all the members; where the talents of all the members are invited to serve. Such a community will not only nurture its members, it will itself be the author of life in the world.

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