By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Malachi 1:14b - 2:2b; Response: Psalm 131:1, 2, 3; Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7b - 9, 13; Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
The source of our first reading is a document attributed to an otherwise unknown prophet. His name may be Malachi, or this name may be no more than a title applied to the unknown prophet. The word Malachi means “my messenger.” He was active in Jerusalem sometime between 445-440 B.C. Some of his concerns: abuses by temple priests in the temple rituals and in their instructions of the people; accepting and offering imperfect sacrificial animals; mixed marriages; divorces; the impending wrath of God; and the obligation of the people to tithe for support of the temple and its personnel. Today’s reading is an indictment of the temple priests. Because of their misconduct, the Lord first establishes that he is a great King, therefore deserves the best from those who conduct his worship. If they do not change, he will put a curse upon them, and their blessings would become curses. Through their obligatory, yet poor, instruction of the people, they cause scandal. They make void the covenant between God and the priests, perhaps a reference to such a covenant in Jeremiah 34:18-19 and Numbers 25:10-13. They are influenced in their judgments by monetary gifts (bribes?). How has the Lord responded? “I have made you contemptible and dishonored among the people.” Not included in our reading is a grosser threat of punishment: “I will reject your offspring and spread on your faces the dung of the animals you sacrifice.”
Psalm 18 is a prayer of trust in the Lord God. The people’s response sets the theme. “In you, Lord, I have found my peace.” He describes the qualities that safeguard that peace. “My heart is not proud. My eyes are not haughty (arrogant). I do not worry about things that are too sublime for me.” A beautiful description of inner peace follows. The peaceful person is like a weaned child who can peacefully sit on its mother’s lap without crying for the milk that once nurtured it. The psalmist prays that all Israel will have that kind of trust in the Lord forever.
The metaphor of a weaned child sitting contentedly in its mother’s lap leads into similar thoughts as our reading from 1 Thessalonians begins. St. Paul, though not always as tender as a mother with a baby, writes to his Greek “parishioners:” “We were gentle with you as a nursing mother cares for her children, with such affection for you ….” He recalls how he and his colleagues shared with them not only the gospel, but even themselves. They worked night and day in toil and drudgery so they would not burden those to whom they were proclaiming the gospel. Meaning: he continued, perhaps with the help of his missionary colleagues, to support himself and them in the craft in which he was skilled — tent-making. This would include making and repairing sails. An ideal means of support in Thessalonica, because it was a seaport on what is today called the Gulf of Salonika.
In our Sunday gospels, we have finished a series of confrontations and debates between Jesus and his opponents — the temple hierarchy and the scribes who were Pharisees. Some of the Pharisee-scribes were friendly to Jesus and later to the Christian movement. Though Mark, Luke, and John make us aware of this, Matthew does not. For him, it is now time to bring this matter to a conclusion in a denunciation of all scribes and Pharisees — no exceptions. Fortunately, the worst of it is not included in today’s gospel reading. The great scribes were Pharisees, but not all Pharisees were scribes — learned Scripture scholars and teachers. Most Pharisees were simply devout Jews. So, when Matthew writes scribes and Pharisees, think scribes who belonged to the Pharisee faction of Jewish life. Matthew notes that the scribes have legitimate authority to teach and lead, “but they preach and do not practice.” That hurts in such a blanket denunciation.
Next, they are said to impose heavy burdens on others’ shoulders, but themselves will not help carry those burdens. Matthew seems to refer to the minute regulations about kosher food, the rules for observance of clean and unclean, finding loopholes in the laws about oaths and tithing, and in the commandments themselves. The scribes were lawyers in the laws of Moses. Dubious interpretation and finding barely legal loopholes in laws was not restricted to the first century. Matthew accuses them of doing good works just for show. He gives examples. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels or fringes on their prayer shawls. Phylacteries were small leather boxes worn in pairs, one on the forehead, the other on the left arm, symbolically close to the heart. They were strapped on with a small band of leather. Quotes from the Torah written on papyrus or parchment were enclosed. The practice was based on Exodus 13:9, 16; Deut. 6:8; and 11:18. Based on Numbers 15:38-39 and Deut. 22:12, male Jews wore tassels at the corners of their shawls to remind them to avoid temptations to sin. We do not know if Jesus wore phylacteries, but he did wear the prescribed tassels, as we see in Matthew 9:20 and 14:36.
Matthew attacks the use of titles. The first rejected title: Rabbi, meaning “My Teacher or Great One.” Reason given: “You have only one teacher” (Jesus). Matthew shows his contempt for the scribes by putting this title only into the mouth of Judas, Matthew 26:25, 49. Another title rejected: “father.” Reason given: we are all brothers and have only the heavenly Father. If this nitpicking were divine revelation, no child could address his father as “father” or the familiar form, “Dad.” The title “Master” is also rejected, “because you have but one Master, the Christ.” These were all titles by which the great scribes/lawyers were being recognized in the last decades of the first century. Matthew indicates there must be a lesson in all the foregoing. “The greatest among you must be your servant.” That is common teaching in the New Testament. A proverbial statement closes today’s gospel. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Who will be the agent of this humbling and exalting? God! Such expressions are called “the Divine passive.” St. Paul furnishes us with the greatest example of the process of humbling and exalting in Philippians 2:5-11, “Have this in mind which was also in Christ Jesus . . . .”