by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“They (the scribes and Pharisees) tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing even to lift a finger to help them carry those loads. Everything they do is done to attract attention…The greatest one among you must be your servant.”  Matthew 23: 1-12

Today’s first reading from the prophet Malachi and the gospel-reading from Matthew are both savage in their criticism of the religious leaders of their time. The Book of Malachi is the last book of the First or Old Testament and dates back to around 450 B.C.  Malachi’s words were trenchantly critical of the priests of his day because of the gap between the words of their prayer and sacrifice and the way in which they lived. Malachi criticises them for their lack of integrity. For reasons unknown to me, the abuse that Malachi puts into the mouth of God is omitted from the selection we read today. The chapter from which this first reading is taken opens with God saying: “And now, priests, this warning is for you. If you don’t listen, if you don’t find it in your heart to glorify my name, I will send the curse on you…Now watch how I am going to paralyse your arm and throw dung in your face.” (Malachi: 2: 1-4) Malachi didn’t mince his words.

Moreover, the criticism that Jesus levels at the scribes and Pharisees centuries after Malachi is equally biting. It is worth noting that Jesus does not question the legitimacy of the authority of these leaders. He does, however, draw attention to the fact that there is no compassion, tolerance or encouragement in the manner in which they deal with their people. They do not speak to the people they lead any word of a God who is gentle, understanding, merciful, caring, loving and compassionate. They hammer them with the letter of the law, weighing them down with directives that wear them out.

If we’re not careful, we can be trapped into saying to ourselves something like: “It was ever the same!”, thereby applying similar criticism to our present-day Church leaders. To lean in that direction means that we forget that we are meant to participate in these readings instead of sitting on the edge of them as observers, analysing them for their meaning rather than asking how they apply to us.

If we are to ask ourselves what Malachi and Jesus might be saying to us through these readings, it must surely have something to do with stopping to reflect on whether or not we are living with integrity. And the first step towards living with integrity is to acknowledge the humanity we share with everyone around us. All we are and have is God-given gift. We are as frail and as vulnerable as every other person we encounter, work beside, call friend or reach out to. That’s why Jesus dwelt on reminding us to avoid questing for titles. Our identity is not to be found in qualifications, titles or position. We are equal in dignity with every other human being, whatever their ethnic origin, skin colour or creed. We are all sisters and brothers to one another, we all bleed, make mistakes, do commendable deeds, and fail miserably. There was a time when fellow Christians went out of their way to put on pedestals those of us who chose the vocation of Gospel ministry to our sisters and brothers. Fortunately, that time has long gone.

In today’s gospel-reading, we encounter a Jesus who was fired up by the actions of religious leaders whom he saw feathering their own nests and using position to burden those for whom they had pledged their lives to care. In pointing to the gap between the expectations they laid on their people and the way in which they themselves lived, he warned us all not to go in search of gurus with recipes for living with integrity and not to allow ourselves to be worshipped as gurus. Yet, there may have been times in our lives when we have succumbed to thinking that we could provide easy answers to our sisters and brothers for dealing with the challenges and trials of life. Unconsciously or unwittingly, we may develop a “messiah complex”.

Complementing and standing in contrast with the words of warning from both Malachi and Jesus are the words of affirmation and encouragement which we hear Paul offering the community of Christians in Thessalonika in today’s second reading. We read how he praised them not just for opening themselves to the message Jesus brought to the world, but for becoming instruments of the love, compassion and mercy of God in the way in which they imitated Jesus.

In the gospel-readings of these last few weeks leading up to Advent we get an insight into what living with integrity meant for Jesus. He had grown to discover the responsibilities that were his if he were to be true to his God-given role as the Messiah, the Christ of God. He cared enough about the scribes and Pharisees (and the people they were meant to be serving) to take the risk of trying to shake them into seeing the error of their ways. In today’s gospel-reading, Matthew presents a Jesus who is at the end of his tether, frustrated by scribes and Pharisees who have persistently chosen to ignore his calls to conversion of mind and heart and to persist in their unwillingness to put the needs of their people first. So, we see a Jesus in all his humanity confronting those religious leaders with strong language because he cared for both them and their people. Jesus’ integrity demanded of him a readiness to speak the truth, regardless of the consequent risk to his own safety.

The distinguishing characteristics of those of us who claim to follow Jesus surely, then, must be a willingness to live with integrity, a readiness to put ourselves, our talents and our energy at the service of others, especially the needy, and the courage to challenge injustice and hypocrisy whenever they are harming others. While the sociological term “the common good” was almost certainly not in vogue in the time of Jesus, he spent his life and gifts in the service of the whole of humanity. Moreover, not once do we hear him claiming credit for the cures he performed or his restoring broken people to their true dignity.

Implicit in Jesus’ warning about seeking titles is a call to be wary of some of the privileges that often accompany position and social importance. Our successes and achievements, like every other good deed we perform, are God’s gifts. Our basking in their glory and accepting the adulation of admirers become meaningless, for what we do and achieve is attributable to God. Yet there are times when we can be trapped into a sense of entitlement because of past achievements, positions we have held or simply because we have been blessed with long life.

Opening ourselves to be participants in today’s readings involves applying to ourselves the very same challenges that Jesus put to the scribes and Pharisees, and pondering the implications of those challenges for living as Christians in the 21st century….