(Ordinary Time – Cycle A)
The Church runs the risk of reproducing within it the same failures of “the scribes and Pharisees” of the time of Jesus (hypocrisy, oppressive legalism, exhibitionism and vanity in religious practice) if it does not have as its only model and teacher Jesus, the humble Messiah (Mt 11,28-30), who has come not to be served but to serve and to give life to all (Mk 10,45). This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word is a call to abandon insincerity, incoherence of life and anxiety within the Christian community.
The first reading is a hard invective against the spiritual guides of the people that, straying from the right way of the Lord’s will, became a stumbling block for the people. The second reading, on the other hand, delineates the physiognomy of the spiritual guide of a community with the image of a “mother”, who does not only communicate the more precious gifts that he possesses (the Gospel) but also his own life. Finally, the Gospel reflects the existing tension between two conceptions of the religious service: that of Jesus, and that of the scribes and Pharisees of Israel. While the latter live religion in a pompous way, greedy for power and with the only intention of affirming themselves, Jesus considers the religious authority as a service rendered in God’s name: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest” (Mt 23,11).
The first reading (Mal 1,14 – 2,2.8-10) is a typical prophetic page with regard to its tone and argument. They are hard words against the priests of Israel who have perverted their mission in the community. The text that is read today in the liturgy belongs to a more ample literary group, the whole of it is reserved to the ministry of the priests in the Temple (Mal 1,6 - 2,9). The prophet addresses himself then to the persons who are called to exercise the ministry of spiritual direction in the community and who have the responsibility in the religious life of the people of God.
The priests in ancient Israel were the ministers of the cult that was realized in the Temple, those in charge of teaching the Law of the Lord to the people and of transmitting to them the blessing in the name of God. The prophet accuses them because they have neglected their duties in an irresponsible way and have perverted the priestly ministry in an immoral way. In short, because “they have not given glory to the name of God”. To give glory to the name of God is not a question of formulas or dogmatic declarations, but a constant commitment of directing one’s conduct and options in life according to His will. The Lord Himself takes away the ministry from these priests and disqualifies them publicly: “If you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse. Yes, I have already cursed it, because you do not lay it to heart” (2,2).
These priests do not acknowledge the absolute sovereignty of the Lord and do not live in obedience to His will. It is the great temptation of the religious cult: to observe conscientiously the rubrics, rites and liturgical ceremonies, but without giving glory to God, that is, acknowledging and obeying Him in life. When this incoherence between cult and life is produced in the very persons of the guides and those who are responsible of the community, then it becomes a reason of disorientation and cause of scandal for many people. This is the great sin of the priests whom Malachi condemns: “But you have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; you have made void the covenant…” (2,8). The last verse constitutes an urgent call to return to the right relationship with God, acknowledging Him as Creator and Father. In the same way that oppressive religion and hypocrisy hides from view the face of God, the authentic religious practice is founded on the experience of the only and true God: “Have we not all the one Father? Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break faith with each other, violating the covenant of our fathers?” (2,10).
The second reading (1Thes 2,7-9.13) is like an antithesis of the prophetic condemnation of the priests in the first reading. Paul presents himself as an authentic servant of the community, as a man close to all, available, one who shares life with the people, full of tenderness towards them like “a mother”. The Apostle does not impose himself, he does not boast of his power nor practices any type of authoritarianism in the community, but one who presents himself as a living sacrament of the love of Christ: “Even though we could have insisted on our own importance as apostles of Christ… while we were among you we were as gentle as any nursing mother fondling her little ones. So well disposed were we to you, in fact, that we wanted to share with you not only God’s tidings, but our very lives, so dear had you become to us” (vv. 7-8). To evangelise is to love deeply. It is “to generate” and “to educate” in the faith. That is why Paul added his “fatherly” firmness to his “maternal” attitude (v. 11: You likewise know how we exhorted everyone of you, as a father does his children): “how we encouraged and pleaded with you to make your lives worthy of the God who calls you to his kingship and glory” (v. 12).
The Gospel (Mt 23,1-12) is a hard criticism of Jesus against the religious authorities of Israel represented in “the scribes and Pharisees”. Jesus warns His disciples about the distorted practices of those spiritual guides of the people of God. The words of Jesus do not put into discussion their magisterial authority in relation with the Law of Moses, but His condemnation is due to the incoherence of life of these people, their oppressive legalism, and their concern for showing off and boasting of themselves.
The denouncements of Jesus in this text are diverse. Firstly, the incoherence of life. Since “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat”, it is necessary to distinguish between the communicated doctrine (that should be accepted) and the negative example of the one who teaches (that should not be imitated). That is why Jesus says: “So, practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but do not practice” (v. 3). Secondly, Jesus reproaches them for their oppressive legalism that springs from the abuse of the magisterial and disciplinary authority that they possess: they impose on others a yoke of norms and unbearable traditions (v. 4). Jesus, on the other hand, presents Himself as a liberating teacher: “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me… for my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11,28-30).
Thirdly, Jesus criticises their religious exhibitionism. They do everything to be seen and approved by others, they make use of the religious practice and observance to make publicity for themselves, assuring themselves of prestige and social privileges. A typical and concrete case of this religious ostentation is the “phylacteries”, which were small cases that contained some texts of the law and which were bound on the left arm and on the forehead during prayer (Ex 13,9-16; Dt 6,8). The observers broaden these cases as sign of devotion or more they carried it the whole day. Likewise, they lengthen the fringes of their cloak (Num 15,38-41) or “the tassels” on the hem of their garments (Dt 22,12), exterior signs that were meant to remind of the commandments of the law.
Fourthly, Jesus criticises their vanity and desire for honour. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law tried to benefit, at the social and personal level, from the prestige that they derive from their religious duties and devote practices. Jesus condemns them because they always seek the places of honour and boast of their honorific titles (vv. 6-7). Jesus criticises not the title in itself, but the aureole of honour and prestige that arise from the title and what these titles represent in community relationships: the authority understood as control and dominion of some over the others. In fact, the motivation to exclude absolutely from the Christian community these honorific dealings and relationships of dominion are of religious type: “As to you, avoid the title ‘Rabbi’, one among you is your teacher… Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven. Avoid being called teachers. Only one is your teacher, the Messiah” (vv. 8-10). Jesus exhorts his disciples in order that in the Christian community fraternal relationship will always be given priority: “you are all brethren” (v. 8). The Christian community is a community of brethren, founded on the dignity of the sons and daughters who recognize only one Father, the One in heaven.
The radical criticism of Jesus against the authoritarian schemes, however, does not exclude the role of the authority in the community, of the person who has the responsibility of being “the first”, “the one responsible”. Jesus considers this responsibility as service, as diakonia, after His own example, the servant par excellence, the humble and poor Messiah who welcomes and liberates those who are oppressed and crushed under the weight of a religion that makes use of the people in favour of a few (Mt 11,28-30; 20,26). The humility of the one responsible of authority in the community is expressed and concretised in the service to others: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest.”