THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 30, 2011

Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13

Matthew 23:1-12

Once we hear the Prophet Malachi address a specific audience, the priests, it would be easy for those not of that category to sit back, relax, and not let the prophesy penetrate to the heart.  That would be a mistake.  There are chastisements in Malachi’s words that the whole assembly needs to hear.

Remember the prophet is divinely appointed to speak to the people what God wants the people to hear.  That is clear in this reading because Malachi speaks as if God were speaking.  The message hasn’t so much to do with predicting the future, the commonly accepted meaning of the word prophet, as it does with calling the people to a change of heart, a conversion, a return to God’s ways.  If you were to read from an early section of Malachi, you would know that God is upset because the priests are not following the Law.  Imperfect animals are being offered in sacrifice.  Blind and lame animals were considered polluted and therefore unfit to be placed on the altar.  The people do not escape the reprimand, however, since they are the ones who present the priests with the inferior animals.

The priests have become careless in their observances.  This is a source of scandal to the people, who in turn have become careless.  Practically, the people are acting like Gentiles.  If they continue in those illicit practices they will become corrupted, and with corruption will come weakness.  Those are the same conditions that resulted in the Babylonian Captivity.  This restored people could fall again and become contemptible and base before all the people.  What is the adage about being doomed to repeat historical mistakes if we do not learn from our history?

Malachi’s final question of the priests today has particular appropriateness for us.  We are the baptized.  Through our baptism we share in Christ’s priesthood.  Living out our priesthood means that we ought to be a people serious about praising and glorifying God even as we are committed to treating our brothers and sisters, indeed, all people with justice and charity.

For the past few weeks, the priests and scribes and Pharisees have had confrontations with Jesus and occasioned judgment-laden parables.  We have heard that these groups were plotting against Jesus looking for ways to condemn him.  Now the scribes and Pharisees are not present as Jesus addresses the crowds (those undecided about Jesus) and the disciples (those committed to following him).  Both groups ought to pay heed to the official teachers since they sit on Moses’ chair.  They are the official interpreters of the Law.  As such they have the responsibility to be prophetic with the people.  Observe all things whatsoever they tell you.  To follow the Law is to do God’s will.  But another adage seems to apply here.  Do as I say, not as I do.  Follow the Pharisees teachings but do not act like them.

The problem quite clearly is that the Pharisees may know the law well, they may spend time arguing about which law is most important, but they are not facilitating the Law’s intent.  They are being oppressive and judgmental and are breaking the spirit of the people.  What has achieved prominent importance in their lives is the image they project, how the people perceive them.  They do nothing to ease the burdens of the people, but rather add to them.  All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  They love places of honor at banquets…and the salutation ‘Rabbi’”

Here I couldn’t help but think of a picture I saw recently of a bishop presiding at a Liturgy in the National Shrine in Washington, DC.  The bishop knelt at his pres dieu, behind him stretched out his cape magna, carried by his attendants.  It looked every bit as long as the train on Princess Diana’s wedding gown.  Talk about widened phylacteries and lengthened tassels!  The bishop is the chief shepherd and teacher in the diocese.  But splendor of garb and life-style make it difficult to see Jesus in the midst of that entire refinery.  I remember being impressed when Pope Paul VI gave the triple tiered papal crown to a museum as a historical artifact, never to be worn again in a papal procession.

The image of the church suffers today, not only in the United States but in Europe as well.  Obviously the sexual abuse scandal contributes to that, as does the inappropriate response of some bishops.  In Ireland, mass attendance in that Catholic Country is very low.  Numbers of Catholics are leaving the church and going to other Christian denominations or giving up the practice of the faith.  Pope John Paul II made public acts of atonement for past abuses, vis-à-vis the treatment of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the Inquisition.  That attitude ought to be replicated by others in the hierarchy so that the image that emerges is one of a penitential church whose primary functions are to praise God in union with Christ, to be servants of the poor and seekers of justice for all.  Harsh judgments and ready refusal of access to Communion do not help that image except among the extreme conservatives among us.

But remember, the gospel is addressed to all of us.  To hear the proclamation focusing only on the hierarchy, thereby letting ourselves off the hook, so to speak, is a mistake.  Again, remember that we are united in Baptismal Priesthood.  We are called to worship God in prayer and praise, to co-celebrate Eucharist as full, active, and conscious participants, and to live as members of the Body of Christ, in service of one another and seekers of justice.  There ought not be a chasm separating what we say from what we do.  Another adage: Actions speak louder than words.  We should not be questing after power, but looking for ways to empower.  That’s what Archbishop Oscar Romero was about and may be why his canonization is not forthcoming.  Some in the Church saw him as an embarrassment.

As we listen to Jesus this weekend we can hear words of encouragement.  Practice humility, which is nothing more than recognizing that all we have and are, is gift.  Listen to your inner promptings.  That can be the Spirit inviting you to recognize your talents and make them available to God’s people through service so that the lowly can be lifted up.  Then Paul’s words in the second reading will resonate in your heart: 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.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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