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.
The setting for the Gospel continues from the dramas in the previous weeks’ readings: Jesus is in Jerusalem, having open debates and ‘skirmishes’ [Nicholas King S.J.] with the religious authorities of his day. They are questioning and challenging him, or perhaps trying to trap him. He is very blunt in his criticisms of their religious leadership! It appears from what follows (just after, it says, ‘Jesus went out of the Temple’) that he is sitting in the courtyard, surrounded by disciples, with some representatives of the religious leadership present, and no doubt some curious onlookers, perhaps enjoying the argument.
The author of the Gospel, however, is also addressing his own contemporaries, among whom were many of a Jewish background, and some of what is said (and the tone) arises from this internal struggle between different orientations and factions of Judaism, as well as those of the Jewish community who had decided to follow Jesus. Some of the language, such as overtly referring to himself in the third person as ‘The Messiah’, might be a phrase stemming from Matthew as author rather than Jesus in the moment; nowhere else in Matthew is Jesus quoted as calling himself The Messiah in the third person, nor does it occur in the earlier Gospel of Mark. (In contrast, in Mark, when the disciples acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, he urges them to keep it a secret from the crowds!)
In this context, it is interesting that Jesus begins by telling his listeners that they should fundamentally respect their religious leaders for the position they occupy in the tradition: ‘the chair of Moses’. So he does not challenge their legitimacy, or reject the Jewish faith. His criticism is of the way in which they conduct themselves and aspects of their teaching that is criticised by Jesus. They make religious injunctions a burden; they display their religiosity in formal, superficial show; they take the best and most prestigious positions; they insist on undue respect not given to others, given their role. All of these points are made using the concrete details of Judaism: the chair of Moses, ‘Phylacteries’, which 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. – Again, Jesus does not object to the religious practices or to Jewish tradition, but implies that the leaders are more interested in impressing (and oppressing?) other people rather than being seen as pleasing in the eyes of God.
In contrast, Jesus makes clear what he wants from his followers: humility and service. Leaders are there to serve, not lord it over others. Moreover, for learning truth and wisdom we have only one teacher – the Messiah
Again – Matthew is quite likely to be tacitly addressing his own community with these words. We don’t know if already there were signs of the ‘leaders’ of his young Christian community falling into this all-too-human behaviour. But we can read between the lines that Matthew intends that they never do.
Suggestions for Prayer or Reflection:
- Do I find myself, even unconsciously, feeling my religion is a burden, cumbersome and laid on me as an obligation – rather than a relationship with someone who promises to take the burdens of the ‘heavy-laden’ who come to him?
- Can I let that go?
- Do I find myself overly influenced by those who claim authority, instead of seeing Jesus as my ‘instructor’ first and foremost? Have they increased my burden? How should I interpret this situation, and respond?