Today’s Gospel raises some questions about relationships in the Christian community, and could be read as a direct challenge to Catholics about the words they use of their leaders. What can we learn from this?
Malachi 1:14- 2:2, 8-10
Little is known about this writer; even his name may be in doubt, as in Hebrew it means ‘my messenger’ and so may have been used like a title by one claiming to speak prophetically in God’s name. It is the last of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible and probably the last written. From the evidence the date is after the Jews had returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, sometime after 515 BCE. Malachi criticises the main priesthood, but praises the second level of Temple servants, named after the historic Levi, and this appears in today’s selection. This reading ends with a profession of God as Father, and so fits with the Gospel.
A short psalm, and we read all of it. It is a profession of simplicity, a childlike humility, an almost mystical prayer of trust.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 9, 13
More from the warm, tender message St Paul to one of his first-founded communities. The description of Paul as a leader shows him as entirely different from the charges we will hear against bad leaders in Matthew.
I have long found some of this selection hard to deal with, from sometime in the past when Protestants used the words ‘call no man father’ to discredit the Catholic Church, where to this day, we address our priests as Father and the Pope is the ‘Holy Father’. Now I have used the commentaries I have at hand to look for a satisfactory interpretation.
The first words continue the disputes with the Pharisees that we have been hearing in past weeks, and is full of the ‘polemic’ style of such disputes. Scholars note that these attacks are significant for Matthew’s community, which likely had a number of converted Jews. Matthew himself gives the most attention of the four evangelists to Old Testament texts and assumes the value of much of it. He and Christians he wrote for believed they were the ones who inherit the role of the ‘chosen people’. This put them in conflict with those Jews who carried on traditions of the Pharisees and were consolidating the Jewish faith after the destruction of the Temple.
But also Jesus is speaking to his own disciples, and that seems in the second part of our reading to be the most important concern to Matthew. Notice how all he says about titles and behaviour centres on Christ. J. P. Meier writes that all of Matthew’s stern words ‘reflect a pastoral concern for his own church’ which is ‘in danger of imitating the mistakes of the Pharisees.’ What Matthew criticises is seeking to be seen as better than others, full of self-importance, wanting others to give them special honours. In contrast, Christians are to see themselves as brothers and sisters, sharing equally in family life. Their authority is God as Father, and Jesus as their Teacher and leader. We could take the prohibitions on using these titles as the kind of exaggeration Jesus uses to get attention to something deeper. (Like ‘cut off your hand, if it leads you into sin’. ‘A rich person can no more get into heaven than a camel can go through a needle-hole.’)
On the other hand, there is still a very real message for us, for there is always a temptation to seek to appear important, ‘holier than thou’, worthy of a special honour in the church – as elsewhere. And a temptation to offer such honour, to excuse ourselves from doing all Jesus has commanded – leave ‘holiness to priests and nuns’ as one may sometimes hear. I know many we call ‘Father’ to be pastoral, humble priests, dedicate to service of the community. So we could take the ‘spirit of the command’ and have less concern for the words we use, as long as we understand that God is our Father in a greater way, that those who teach us draw on Christ as Teacher. We all have the obligation to serve others in the community as a good family takes care of each other.
To understand some of the details in the objections to the Pharisees: ‘Phylacteries’ were described in Exodus 13:1-6, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21. They were little boxes tied to the body in which were written texts from the Law, as a reminder to obey them. Making them especially conspicuous would be a way of seeming to observe these better than others. ‘Tassels’ were sewn to the four corners of the outer garment, see Numbers 15:38-39, Deuteronomy 22:12. They too were meant as visible reminders to carry out the commandments.