The readings for this Sunday seem to concern themselves with the leadership of both the Jewish and the Christian community. Malachi addresses his remarks to the Temple priests. Jesus denounces the Pharisees, one particular group of Jewish leaders. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians looks at the question of leadership from the opposite viewpoint by describing how he and his companions, Sylvanus and Timothy, have worked within the community while they preached the Gospel to the people of Thessalonica.
Malachi is a post-exilic book of prophecy. The condemnation that the prophet levels against the priests reflects the tensions of that time period. In the opening verses of this book, the Israelites are challenged to consider their covenant relationship with their God. Simply put, if they consider God their father, then they are to honor him. If they consider God their master, they are to obey. Unfortunately, the priests were so taken up with the task of rebuilding the Temple that they did neither. Temple worship became their means of supporting themselves rather than a means of sanctifying the people. The priests began to ignore their responsibility to educate the Israelites about the covenant. Instead they used the Temple worship as a means to extort more from the people.
The Gospel passage also must be understood in its historical context. Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem. The insults that are leveled against the scribes and the Pharisees reflect the bitter opposition which that community was experiencing from the Jewish leadership. Matthew levels three accusations against the scribes and Pharisees: they do not practice what they preach, they adopt a very narrow and burdensome interpretation of the Torah, and they seek public acknowledgment.
By contrast, we read from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, a letter in which he employs the image of a nursing mother to describe his leadership style as the missionary to the Gentiles. Unlike the Pharisees who are described as laying heavy burdens upon the people and refusing to lift a finger to ease that burden, St. Paul insists that he came among them as one of them who plied his trade as a tent maker so that he would not lay an economic burden upon the community while preaching the Gospel and nurturing their faith.
We might be tempted to read these three passages today and simply point our fingers at the leadership of the Church or the leadership of our country or the leadership of our local community. That is, after all, the segment of the population which is being accused. However, it is far more important for us to realize that all of us are called to leadership within the spheres of our various lives. Parents, teachers, employers, and political figures are some of the leadership roles that are part of our modern society. Yet even among the young, we see examples of leadership in captains of sports teams, or student assemblies, or scout packs, etc. These Gospel criticisms, consequently, are not only directed to one person or one vocation. Rather, we must apply these words, these criticisms to our lives and our sphere of influence. As the title of one book of Scripture essays puts it, “We Are the Pharisees.”
Parents and teachers and employers and political figures cannot expect the people in their charge or their constituency to develop into mature Christians or good citizens if they do not practice the virtues they preach. We cannot mouth words about mercy and forgiveness in church without putting these virtues into practice as we encounter others. We cannot expect God to be patient with our shortcomings if we are not patient with others. If we expect others to treat us with respect, then we must be respectful in our dealings with them. While we may have different roles in society, none of us is more important than the next person. All are called to deal fairly with the people with whom they live and work.
The table of the Lord before which we stand today is a great equalizer. No one who approaches the supper of the Lamb stands taller than the next person. All of us come to this banquet as sinners in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus has left this sign of his covenant with us as a reminder that we are all called to holiness, we are all called to honor and worship God, and we are all called to obey the commandments. Before we receive the Eucharist, we pray “Forgive us as we forgive others.” This prayer could be called dangerous in that, like the Pharisees of old, we might be condemned by our own words.