Malachi 1: 14b–2:2b, 8-10
1 Thess. 2: 7b–9, 13
Matthew 23: 1-12
The words of the prophet Malachi are searing and condemnatory. But they are not an indictment of the community per se; they are meant for the priests who are supposed to serve the community. The words the prophet directs toward the priests could not be more painful: I will make a curse of your blessing. Something is terribly wrong. Things are being turned upside down and not for the better.
Malachi is speaking at the time when the temple was rebuilt after the return from exile. But from what he says, the temple may be rebuilt, but the priests who serve that temple have not reformed themselves. Instead of offering the best animals in sacrifice, they satisfy themselves with the strays, the weak and the sick. They are not offering God what is the best, what is pure. When they do this, they are in effect downgrading the people. Another area of condemnation is the priests’ instructions. Instead of proclaiming God’s word and helping people to live by it, they are causing people to fall away from God. The last area God faults the priests for is their judicial activity. They are showing partiality in judging. In other words, the priests are favoring one segment of the population over another; some are treated as special while others are looked down on. God is God of all the people, but decisions are being made that split the community and break the unity.
There is always a reason why God speaks through the prophets in angry words. And God never fails to give reasons for his anger. The prophet Malachi makes quite clear what the priests are doing is wrong. The words were harsh in Malachi’s days. Are they no less harsh today? The sexual abuse cases of our clergy have raised the anger of the community. Bishops who turned a blind eye and ear when such cases were reported have come under fire. When religious leadership fails, the community suffers. When the shepherds are not longer shepherds, then the flock suffers. A trust is broken.
What is God concerned about here? What is behind the anger the prophet speaks? The community: You have made void the covenant of Levi. The faith between us is broken; the covenant between God and his people is violated. God’s searing words reflect his grief that the love he has for the community, the love in the covenant bond, is not being upheld. A sacred bond is fractured, violated. Those who are supposed to nurture the relationship between God and his people have failed. From God’s point of view, this is a great pain and sorrow for he is the covenant partner of his people.
The healing process, naturally, is to restore a relationship of love. God is not interested in punishing but in getting the community back on track, back on the way, he says. Leadership plays a necessary role in that. What is to be restored is solidarity among all members of the community. God’s love is faithful. The community will thrive, leaders and all members, when they respond to that fidelity with the same concern and love for all that they have experienced. We have one Father, we have one God who created us, the prophet pleads. Let us remember that we are one.
In the gospel, Jesus does not directly confront religious leaders but he does warn his disciples what religious leadership does not look like. Again, what is his concern behind his clear description of what might be described as corrupt religious leadership, leadership that has lost the way? His concern is for the community of his disciples. Leadership of a community, of the Church, he says, is not about making life religiously difficult for the members, laying up burdens; it is not about saying one thing, a good thing, and then doing something different; it is not about titles, it is not about honor or showing off one’s piety. It is not about looking for recognition and expecting to be treated special. Jesus is clear about that. You are all brothers and sisters, he reminds us.
Jesus is not all negative today. Rather he makes his point in one line and asks us to imagine what it might look like. He takes the human desire to be up front, to be above and first of all and turns it upside down. For Jesus the heart of leadership is not sitting at the head table, having a fancy title, a nice car, free services, etc. The heart of leadership is service. The Son of Man, he says, did not come to be served but to serve. Leadership, religious leadership, looks like serving others at the table. It is putting the other first.
What kind of leadership does Jesus expect in the covenant community, what we know as and what Matthew will call Church? Servant leadership. Where will God be present in his covenant community? In acts and lives of service; this is where God dwells. Service, Jesus, says is why I have come; it is also what I leave behind. It will be the hallmark of the community Jesus forms with his disciples. Special, exclusive groups are out–we all have one Father; special gurus, those who have special access to knowledge, they are out–there is only one master, one teacher: the Christ. Anyone who exercises leadership must be a servant as Christ was servant; to use another model, such as Jesus describes today, is to step out of discipleship, to step out of the covenant Jesus establishes with love in his blood.
What God says in the prophet and what Jesus emphasizes is a community living in solidarity with God and one another. What is central is experiencing the bonds being formed by lives of service following the model of its Master, Jesus Christ. What Jesus is urging us on to today is to make Christ the center: the Christ who humbled himself to die on a cross that we might know and see that God is faithful and will stand with those who are last. When Christ is the center, then we can be in solidarity with one another and in communion with the one Father and God of all.
Prior Joel Macul, OSB