Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time - Scripture Soundings
First Reading: Malachi 1:14b -- 2:2b, 8:10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 131:1, 2, 3
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
The book of Malachi is the last of the prophetic books, and a short one it is--only three chapters. The name of the book, Malachi, is a proper noun for the Hebrew word that simply means "my messenger." This anonymous messenger of the Lord had reason to fly beneath the radar. His was a distressing message delivered during a wobbly time--the resettlement of Israel after the exile. The people could barely see the sun, and they were unsure whether it was rising or setting on their nation, their lives.
In the resettled Israel, a new Temple had been built, but the reforms of Nehemiah were yet to come. The state of religious worship was dismal, and Malachi lay the fault squarely at the feet of priest and people alike.
Today's first reading concerns the leaders--the priests of the tribe of Levi. He describes the worship of people who have no heart for it. Malachi warns of the corrosive effect of this empty worship that distances the people from God and from one another.
In today's Gospel, Jesus speaks the same language as Malachi. He excoriates the behavior of the teachers, even as he upholds their teachings. The problem is not located in the Law of Moses, says Jesus, but in those called to uphold it. Jesus urges the faithful to follow the honorable teachings but not the teachers.
Jesus enumerates the ways in which the holiest images, words, and behaviors are stood on their head. The best is too often betrayed by the teachers themselves. Phylacteries that contain the written words of faith were prescribed to be near to hand and mind to recall forever Israel's covenant with the Lord. But now in Jesus' time, the place and meaning of these phylacteries and tassels are subverted to call attention to the bearer, not to the message. The leaders relish the title rabbi--"my great one," "my master"--but nothing is done to be worthy of this title. Teachers lay heavy burdens on the followers, who stumble in the darkness created by the very teachers they look to.
In no uncertain terms, Jesus teaches that this must not be the leadership style of his followers . His words aim at the disciples' inner disposition. He urges avoidance of grand titles and trappings. He reminds us that we have one Father and all are the children of that Father. "Children of their Father" is our primary title. The qualities of humility, fidelity, and honor set the standard for all other titles that might be used and all actions that flow from the necessary hierarchies that help order our lives.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn of Jesus' style of leadership as he does the work commonly undertaken by slave and shepherd. He doesn't advocate a run to the bottom of a society's pecking order, but he does advocate the attitude of minister, comforter, companion no matter what one's title or level of responsibility.
Paul got the message of Jesus, which he passed on to his beloved Thessalonians. Paul brought the message of the risen Lord to his time and place. But he was not the sole carrier of religious news. The Mediterranean area was rife with new cults and ideas and mystery religions. Generally, these cults rose and fell on the persuasiveness of the guru, or cult figure.
Paul stands in counterpoint to this cultic style. He is not preaching or teaching a cult religion dependent on his personal charm and insight. He is in service to the Word of the Lord, which is at work in the assembly at Thessalonica. As leader and teacher in that small community of converts, Paul presents himself as one who is among them as a mother with nursing children. This image, as well as those Jesus spoke of and demonstrated, are transparent images of care and presence. No one is lording it over anyone.
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Updated: May 11, 2008