First reading: Malachi 1:14, 2:2, 8-10.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 130(131).
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13.
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12.
Link to readings.
At first sight, we are confronted with a very negative theme uniting the First Reading and the Gospel today. Both target unworthy and exploitative religious leaders. Both, however, in their final part point to the positive value underlying the critique: that all members of the covenant people are bound up together as one family under the Fatherhood of God.
The Book of Malachi comes from the time after the return from exile in Babylon when, under the rule of the Persian empire, the Jews had been allowed to rebuild the Temple. The prophet has a high regard for Temple worship and the responsibility of the priestly order who serve there. Hence the warning to the priests in the First Reading (Mal 1:14-2:2, 8-10) that their poor conduct and corrupt administration are a breach of their covenant responsibilities, both to God and to the people as a whole. It is rare for the Old Testament to speak of God as Israel's "Father". Thus the appeal at the end of the reading is quite striking. For Israelites to break faith with each other is tantamount to rending family ties, for the covenant has united them all in one family under God.
The Gospel, Matt 23:1-12, comes from the final stages of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem when he warns the people and his disciples against the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus seems to accept the continuing religious authority of these experts, even telling his followers to listen to what they say. Interpreters have long been hard put to explain how Christians of Matthew's generation could see themselves as still somehow under the authority of the Synagogue. The gospel seems to have preserved some very early tradition recording Jesus' critique of the religious leaders of his time in order to set up a contrast with the way leadership is to run in the later Christian community.
The critique actually goes to the very heart of Matthew's presentation of Jesus as an authoritative interpreter of the Torah (Law of Moses). The scribes and Pharisees bring to their interpretation of the Torah a host of rulings from their own tradition that, instead of making it something liveable and life-enhancing, actually make it burdensome and crushing. Their scribal and religious expertise simply serves to lay heavier burdens upon an already burdened people. It also serves to enhance their own power and authority, leading to the kinds of honour-seeking behaviour in public that Jesus lampoons and condemns.
In contrast, Matthew consistently portrays Jesus as the One, who, as Son of God and Servant, comes to bear and lift the burdens of afflicted humanity. It is all summed up in the invitation, "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my (in contrast to their) yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (11:28-29). In fact, the sense of people as burdened and of Jesus as the one who looks upon them with compassion and acts towards them accordingly runs throughout the narrative (4:23-25; 8:16-17; 9:10-13; 9:35-36; 12:15-21; 14:13-14; 15:32; cf. 23:23). The entire Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is simply a sustained and authoritative reinterpretation of the Torah in the light of this vision.
It is this understanding and practice of Jesus that sets the pattern for the way in which leadership in the community of the Kingdom should be exercised. Since all belong equally to the one family of God (God as Father) and since all teaching flows directly from the continuing presence of the one Teacher, the risen Lord, in the community (18:20; 28:20), there is no place for honorific titles and practices that might suggest otherwise. The pattern of leadership has been set forever by the Servant One who came "not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many" (20:28); the "greatest", therefore, must be "your servant".
The Christian tradition (especially in its Catholic and Eastern Orthodox forms) has not taken this instruction literally. All clerics, from priests up, are customarily addressed in some form as "Father". Now, with the widespread exposure of clerical abuse and the failure of authorities to handle it effectively and responsibly, the time has surely come to revisit the values and teaching enshrined here. Above all, preachers should avoid the temptation simply to shuffle off the critique of religious leadership given here as something that applied to the Judaism of Jesus' day, without internal relevance for Christian community life and structure today.
Paul's recall of his pastoral concern for the Thessalonians in the Second Reading, 1 Thess 2:7-9, 13, provides a helpful positive complement to the overall theme.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media