First Reading: Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10 Responsorial: Psalm 131:1, 2, 3 Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13 Gospel Passage: Matthew 23:1-12
In the first reading, the prophet Malachi announces the judgment of the Lord upon a self-serving religious leadership. That judgment is part of a larger picture of God’s shepherding of the people. God’s “leadership” is entirely unselfish. The Lord has no need of human praise or offerings. There is no other motive for an all powerful, eternal being than the outpouring of faithful, enduring love. The Lord’s love pours fourth in creation itself and continues for the created as we witness the Lord guiding, caring for, protecting, and saving the people.
If God’s own exercise of authority provides a model of unselfish service, then any who would participate in that authority must live and act likewise. Notice the wisdom of Psalm 131 in this regard. It praises a child-like awareness and dependence upon God. It is a humility that gives itself over to the Divine Will and recognizes there the only true hope.
Contrast this humility and trust with the behavior of the leaders in Malachi’s day. They exercised their own will and sought their own interests. They played favorites and sought all the prerogatives and profits of worldly leadership. And so the Lord denounces their failure to do His will and their abuse of the people. They are not only cursed, they have become a curse to the people. The very leaders who should have brought participation in the blessings of the Lord, have become themselves a burden to the people that they purport to serve.
In Jesus’ day, the Temple leadership was widely viewed in this way. Herod and his family had corrupted the Temple leadership – appointing lackeys who would serve the interests of the dynasty. If in that process, they helped themselves to the privileges of life in leadership, the power hungry Herodians would not raise the alarm. For this reason, the Essenes fled Jerusalem for the desert to await the Lord’s purification of the Temple and the city. For this same reason, John the Baptist and Jesus both denounced the Temple leadership. And further, they pointed to the truth that there was a new “Temple” in the person of Jesus.
So then, why do we hear Jesus speak harshly today to the Pharisees. They were no friends to the Sadducees who ruled the Temple. By contrast, the Pharisees sought to purify the people – to lay the groundwork for God’s reign. Their teachings called for the expansion of the formerly priestly code of Leviticus to the whole people in order to achieve this new holy and priestly people. But therein lies the problem. The ritual purity code of Leviticus was difficult enough for the residents of Jerusalem. For the poor, especially the rural poor, it was well nigh impossible to observe all the demands of the code. Jesus is denouncing this kind of exclusion of the marginalized. And it seems that He was especially provoked by the fact that some in the leadership placed “heavy burdens” on those without resources and then blamed “the victim” for the inevitable failure: they were “sinners” beyond the pale. Even worse, those who did manage all the details felt themselves superior in their achievement. As opposed to the temple leadership, they may not have been financially corrupt, but they received another kind of profit from their false leadership – they reaped a harvest of titles, attention, and honors.
These examples of corrupt leadership are set in sharp relief by the beautiful model of St. Paul. Paul never claimed any status beyond that of a poor servant to the Lord Jesus. He frequently made it clear that his motivation was not self-interest but a sense of gratitude and obligation to the Lord and his abiding love for others. In the passage from Thessalonians we hear him speak in moving terms of his love for them as a mother loves and cherishes her nursing child. And there it is – that dread phrase “dearly beloved.” This is no cliché. Paul’s address captures his motivation and his communion with the Divine Will.
I am not necessarily trying to revive a phrase, but I do wonder whether all church leaders might do well to reflect on the words “dearly beloved.” It is good to be reminded in Whose authority we speak and act – to remember God’s love and grace – to give ourselves over in humility to that Communion – and to exercise a leadership in which only others are dear for indeed they are well and truly beloved.