Our first reading comes from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Through Malachi, God warns his priests: “If you do not listen, if you do not find it in your heart to glorify my name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send the curse on you and curse your very blessing.” He then accused them of leading others astray and causing others to stumble. Furthermore, they have broken the covenant of Levi. For this God has made them contemptable and vile in the eyes of others. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus again set his sights on the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus acknowledged that they “occupy the chair of Moses,” but then instructed those gathered to listen to their words but not practice what they preach. “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on other men’s shoulders.” They wear broad phylacteries and long tassels. They love being greeted obsequiously and being called Rabbi. Jesus then tells those gathered to call no one Rabbi or Teacher as only the Christ is their teacher. The Gospel ends with this call: Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And they all lived happily ever after. You see, that’s how the book of Malachi was supposed to start. While it’s the last book of the Old Testament it wasn’t written just before the beginning of the New Testament. In fact, it was written after the exiles’ return from Babylon, about 450 years before the birth of Jesus.
The 2nd Temple had been built and this reading came at a time of relative freedom for the people. They were free of the Babylonians, the Persians posed no threat, and oppression by the Greeks and Romans were in the future.
With memories of oppression so present in their minds, I imagine God would have expected just a little more humility. Instead it appears that “priests” strayed from their responsibilities. I put “priests” in quotations because it’s an oversimplification to equate the priests here with priest in the 21st Century Catholic Church. Between this reading and the Gospels, the Israelite community found itself populated by several different groups: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, elders, etc.
Suffice it to say that priests in this reading were tasked with offering blessings. But, as with anyone in leadership, it mattered how they lived their lives. I don’t think I need to say much about this, but character counts. Integrity counts. And how the priests lived outside of giving blessings mattered.
If you know that the person who delivers your newspaper is a common drunkard, does it matter? Do you care if he knocks off at 8AM and hits the local dive bar? Probably not. He has a job to do, and as long as he does his job most of us don’t care how he spends his off hours. We may feel he is making poor choices and wish he made better decisions but we likely won’t rethink our decision to subscribe to the newspaper.
But there are other people in our lives where it does matter. In high school I had a math teacher who I greatly respected, and I was horrified one day when I spotted a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. Never mind that I lived in Virginia where tobacco was practically the state flower: my friends and I exerted peer pressure on each other not to smoke and I found it difficult to square my respect for Mr. Kemp with the reality that he smoked.
In addition to our teachers, we place religious leaders in an even higher place, and expect even better leadership from them. God criticizes priests in this reading for not listening. Without wandering too far into the weeds I noticed that the word “listen” is used instead of “hear.” When we think of the word “hear” we tend to think of it as a mechanical thing: when we test for deafness we measure hearing. We see hearing as little more than the ability to absorb sound; we hear train whistles and dogs barking. But while they may raise awareness, they don’t penetrate our soul. But when we listen, it matters to us in how we live our lives. We listen to those we love (and those we don’t) and what we hear matters.
Malachi’s complaint toward the priests rested on this: they heard but did not listen. And because their actions did not glorify God, because their actions served only themselves, their blessings rang hollow with their people. When God threatens to remove their ability to bless it made a difference.
OK, so why can’t the people in Malachi accept blessings from the priests without caring how the priests lived? It’s simple: they looked at priests as more than the person who blessed them. They looked toward the priests as role models. In other words, if a priest did something, it must be OK for anyone to do it.
Catholics of my generation remember well the “sin of scandal.” Scandal occurred when someone in authority did something wrong with the implication that what he did was permissible. A priest who taught that women are to be treated with respect but then shamelessly flirted with an attractive woman tacitly teaches others to ignore his words and pay attention to his actions.
We see this even more clearly in today’s Gospel. Nobody argued that the scribes and Pharisees taught well. I’ve spoken about this before but scribes and Pharisees were second to none in their understanding of God’s will. But rather than use their position to advance God’s kingdom, they used their position to (and I love this phrase) “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders.” Jesus’ withering criticism must have driven them insane if only because he ridiculed the very things they saw as objects of respect. Observant Jews of his time wore phylacteries: a small box that contained passages of Torah, worn on the forehead and on the left arm. They also wear tassels, fringes on the edge of their prayer cloth, to remind themselves of God (much like tying a string around your finger to remind yourself of something).
And yet nothing in Scripture governed the size of phylacteries or tassels. We can only assume Jesus commented on their size because the scribes and Pharisees made them larger to impress “the commoners.”
But what can we glean from these readings? Only a few of you reading this are priests, and nobody claims the title of scribe or Pharisee. Are we free of what these readings teach? I don’t think so. Even if we’re not religious leaders, most of us hold positions of authority. If we are parents (or grandparents), if we supervise others in our workplace, if we mentor others, and even if we are perceived as leaders in a social group, we need to pay attention to these readings.
Of spoken of this before, but in my mid 20s I was a church youth minister and also administered the parish’s religious education program. We taught nearly 1,000 children, ages 4 to 18 and it was a big job and it often felt overwhelming. I determined early on that I would do everything I could to make the teachers’ jobs easier. If a teacher wanted to show a 16mm film (yes, I’m that hold) I would set up the projector before class. This infuriated my pastor. He felt that I should stay in my office, make people come to me, and order people to do what needed to be done. He told me if I was seen running around getting things done, nobody would respect me.
I cheerfully ignored this advice (and others). I say this not to blow my own horn but to say that respect for my authority came not from ordering others around, but by making sure they had what they needed.
Let’s all do that.