Malachi 1:14 - 2:2. 8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9. 13; Matthew 23:1-12
Not many priests will feel comfortable with the readings today; they are aimed directly at us, though every word could be applied in some way to the laity too.
About five hundred years before Christ God delivers, through the prophet Malachi, several clear reproaches to priests who:
- don't listen to God.
- don't glorify God.
- have strayed from the way.
- have caused many to stumble by their teaching.
- destroy the covenant.
- have not kept to God's paths.
- have shown partiality in their administration.
These recriminations are gravely serious. One can hear the anguish, the hurt, and the righteous indignation of the offended King, and that fact alone should make every priest tremble. To break faith with the Lord, or as God puts it, 'to destroy the covenant' is no small thing.
A priest is called to 'listen to God'. When Jesus called the Twelve he called them firstly: to be with him (Mk 3:14), and consequently this is a priest's first vocation; to be always with the Lord.
It goes without saying that to be with someone is to listen to that person. Listening is the first casualty of a disintegrating relationship. We have probably all had the experience of drifting from the person at the other end of the telephone line to what is happening on the television screen, and it's rather embarrassing to be caught out.
God is complaining that the priests had stopped listening and were therefore no longer with him, and consequently were no longer able to 'glorify' his name.
The Lord declares that his priests: have strayed from the way …and … not kept to God's paths. If the shepherd does not keep to the right path what are we to expect will happen to the sheep? The Lord spells it out for us: You have caused many to stumble by your teaching.
These words from God, I am speaking personally now, stop me dead in my tracks. To teach in God's name is a terrible responsibility as well as an astonishing privilege which should be exercised with the utmost seriousness. Indeed, a priest is ordained precisely to preach the gospel and to celebrate the sacraments worthily, and so to build up communion in Christ.
Can you imagine the calamity it would be for me to suddenly see that I had 'strayed from the way' of God's truth and 'caused many to stumble'; that I had preached what the people wanted to hear rather than what Christ wanted them to hear. I could think of few other things which would cause me greater shame before God.
Without the slightest ambiguity the Lord pronounces sentence on the guilty: I will send a curse on you and curse your very blessing. In addition God will make those priests: contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people… . We all know that when salt loses its flavour it is thrown out and trampled upon.
Jesus, too, points out to the Scribes and Pharisees that they have betrayed the covenant because they do not live the message they preach. In fact, they use their position as leaders to advance their own egos and win prestige for themselves.
Thank God for St Paul and the example he gives of true ministerial zeal. He labours in preaching the gospel and lives it with integrity. The understanding Paul has of his care for the Thessalonian community is of a mother 'feeding and looking after her own children … eager to hand over … not only the Good News but our whole lives'. What a contrast to the Jewish leaders who 'do not practise what they preach!'
And thank God for the Thessalonian community which, on hearing the message of Paul, immediately accepted it for what it really is, God's message, and not some human thinking … . Therefore the message of faith was a 'living power' among them.
The clear light of God's word still searches even today the hearts of priests and people alike.
- Do we priests preach and live the message handed on to us by the apostles to the Church or do we change it and cause people to stumble?
- And do you, the people of God, accept that message from the Church without changing it, or make it into 'human thinking' and thereby cause it to lose its power?