31st. Sunday of Year (A)
(Malachi 1:14 - 2:2, 8-10; 1st. Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12)
Jesus had just been targeted by the Herodians, then the Sadducees, and finally by the Pharisees:
This happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, 'They hated Me without a cause.' (John 15:25)
And after having confounded His opponents by the beauty of His truth, He then turned and:
spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.”
To understand our Lord’s words, we must turn to another saying of His, speaking, this time, not about the scribes and Pharisees as teachers in Israel, but of His very own Self the supreme Teacher:
Jesus said, ‘My teaching is not My own but is from the One Who sent Me. Whoever chooses to do His will shall know whether My teaching is from God or whether I speak on My own. Whoever speaks on his own seeks his own glory, but whoever seeks the glory of the one who sent him is truthful and there is no wrong in him.
There you have the root meaning of those other words of Jesus:
You have but one teacher, you have but one Father in heaven;
for those who sincerely choose, want to know and seek to do, God’s will, and who, to that end seek the best teaching available, your Father in heaven will guide you into the truth you so sincerely and perseveringly seek.
One such ‘seat of Moses’ -- carved in stone -- has been found in an ancient synagogue: it was a seat of honour where he sat who was expounding the teaching of Moses to the people gathered in the synagogue for the Sabbath, and here, in this passage of the Gospel, Jesus acknowledges that the Pharisees were the teachers and guides for the synagogue at that time. This is shown us again in St. John’s Gospel (3:1-10):
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?”
That was the trouble with the Pharisees and their scribes: they knew too much about their own traditions and understood too little about the teaching and ways of God. Moreover, they added so much to the teaching of Moses, as Jesus remarked:
they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders;
in fact, there were 613 such prescriptions from the Scribes and Pharisees that could encumber and stifle the lives of people wanting to find God. These were the subject of much synagogue teaching where too little of God’s basic revelation through Moses and the Prophets was taught, while too much attention was given to the embellishments of particular Pharisaic traditions and the personal opinions of individual scribes and rabbis; which is why the people so much appreciated Jesus when He spoke in the synagogue for, we are told (Luke 4:32):
They were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority.
Nevertheless, People of God, since Jesus, on this occasion, was speaking not directly to the Twelve who lived in His personal proximity, but to the multitudes of interested people and crowds of disciples who were following Him from places He had passed by on His way to Jerusalem, that is, to more or less ordinary men and women who were devout enough to be seeking God but whose life-pattern was necessarily centred on making a living for themselves and their families, to such disciples and hearers Jesus had no hesitation in telling them to follow the teaching of the Pharisees and Scribes given in the name of Moses when, that is, on the seat of Moses they were authoritatively expounding Moses’ traditional teaching from the Scriptures in the synagogue. In that we can recognize that Jesus in no way encouraged individual, self-established and self-promoting, teachers in the synagogue; for the essence of God’s teaching is that it is authoritative teaching and, as such, is necessarily handed down authoritatively, that is, in the name of God and, in these our days, on the authority of God’s Church.
Throughout the history of Mother Church great harm has been done to her by clerics and religious of scandalous lives on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by self-commissioned lay-people assuming and asserting a right to publicly promote their own personal understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ against the Gospel proclamation of Mother Church through her appointed, authoritative, ministers: a two-thonged scourge with clerics and religious living a distortion of the Christian life, and self-appointed lay preachers proclaiming a distortion of the Gospel. And, of course, I am not now speaking simply of the past, for our modern times are still being ravaged by these perennial scourges.
However, I prefer to continue now with the glories intended and established by God for His People as indicated to us in today’s readings.
The lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.
How little is that known and acknowledged today! Many, many, possibly even a majority of present- day Catholics are most concerned about what people around them think and say, not about God’s will or His greater pleasure. They want know what concerns them most, here and now; that is, how to be acceptable to others around them.
There the prophet Malachi shows forth the true function and purpose of those called to lead and serve God’s People: they are to be messengers of God’s saving truth and purpose for all who are seeking to know His will and to live their lives under the shelter of His wings. Such priests (then and now) should seek God’s glory not their own renown; and -- always intending to serve the salvation of God’s People -- they must never adulterate His Word in order to pander to popular clamour. St. Paul best expressed the spirit that should animate and characterize the priest of God:
We thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe; (and), affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.
Let us now regard the People of God as Jesus outlines them to us:
Therefore, whatever they (who legitimately occupy the chairs of leadership among God’s People) tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.
There, ‘observe’ is used with the meaning that it has in ‘observe the Sabbath’, ‘observe, keep the word, the words, of Jesus. It is a word expressing not blind obedience but rather loving acceptance of what is of religious importance, a teaching to be embraced because it is the Lord’s. Notice that it is only the truth and the will of God that can hold and determine His People, not the person of the minister:
Do not do according to their works, for they say and do not do.
Since only the truth of God is good enough for God’s People it is not enough for anyone to claim in self-justification that such and such a person did, or that plenty of people were doing, the same as they themselves had done …. As the Psalmist said prophetically, ‘the Lord is my light and my salvation’, we should fear no other, neither should we trust in any other. People of God, each and every one of you who is a living member of the Body of Christ is of a divine lineage, don’t ever fear or rely on what is merely flesh and blood. That is, once again, what lies behind the words of Jesus to His disciples:
Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.
We all have, Malachi the prophet declared, one God who created us, and we all have one Father, Who, as Jesus revealed, calls us. In order to fulfil our being and answer our calling here on earth each of us has been allocated a position in, and a function for, the Body of Christ our Saviour and Teacher.
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. (1 Corinthians 7:27)
That is, whether you are married, bereaved, or single, God has a positive function, purpose, and position for you in His plan of salvation. And confidently bearing in mind God’s careful planning and solicitousness for your presence and place at His inaugural and eternal feast of heaven, listen once again to Jesus (Luke 14:8-11):
When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, but when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
At the end of our earthly service no one but the Father knows what will be our position in heaven. Some, perhaps all, of the Apostles were, early on, childish enough to argue about or scheme for their position; surely now we can, like a child at peace on its mother’s breast, leave all that to the Father’s eternal wisdom and Son-giving goodness; and, humbly acknowledging our many sins and failings find ourselves totally content to confidently pray for His merciful forgiveness and hope for His blessing on us in the name of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Father’s eternal, only-begotten and well-beloved Son.