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November 5 2017 (A) Thirty-First Sunday of the Year

The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Priests and their office of preaching.
  2. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10). You have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by you teaching. This reading may be understood all the better when placed within its original biblical context in the book of Malachi. The name Malachi in Hebrew means “my messenger”, and in 3:1 God says: “I shall send my messenger (malachi) to clear a way before me”. It may be that the title of the work comes from here, so that we do not know the name of its real author. The date of the work is also quite uncertain, possibly some time in the fifth century B.C. Some would date it between the completion of the Second Temple in 515 and recommencement of sacrifice there and the ban on mixed marriage under Nehemiah in 445 B.C. The book is composed of six passages similar in construction, in each of which God, or his prophet, makes a statement which is disputed by priests or people. After this a discourse follows in which threat and a promise of salvation are given side by side. There are two main themes in the book, the failure of priests, 1:6-2:9 and of the people, 3:6-12, in their religious duties.

The first section on the failure of priests regards their neglect acceptable offerings at God’s altar (1:8-13). The second part, today’s reading, censures the priests for having strayed from the way, for having caused many to stumble by their teaching, and having destroyed the covenant of Levi. The priests were of the tribe of Levi. A covenant with Levi is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and the reference may be to Moses’ blessing of Levi. Moses at his death is represented as blessing Levi as follows (Deuteronomy 33:9-11): “They (tribe of Levi) observed your word and kept your covenant. They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law; they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar. Bless, O Lord, his substance, and accept the work of his hands”. This present Sunday reading omits verses 2:3 to 7 of the biblical text. In this address to priests I believe they merit reproduction here. After threatening the priest with appropriate punishment God says: “(v. 4) Then you will know that I sent this commandment to you, to affirm my intention to maintain my covenant with Levi, says the Lord of hosts. (v. 5) My covenant was with him – a covenant of life and peace, and these were what I gave him – a covenant of respect, and he respected me and held my name in awe. (v. 6) The law of truth was in his mouth and guilt was not found on his lips; he walked in peace and justice with me and he converted many from sinning. (7) For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. (v. 8) But you yourselves have turned away from the way..”, as in the Sunday lectionary. The priest had various functions in Israel and this at different times. One of them was, as already stated in the blessing of Moses was to “teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law”. The Lord complained to the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:8): “The priests did not say ‘Where is the Lord?’. Those who handle the law did not know me”. The priests were looked up to by the people when they were faithful to the calling, but lacked respect when they went aside from it, as was the case in Malachi’s day.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 130[131]). Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord.

Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13). We were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News but our whole lives as well. This is a very candid and touching statement by the apostle Paul on his missionary attitude to the Christian communities he had founded, in this case the Church at Thessalonica. Some words on the on his activity there have been given above in the introduction to this letter in the notes for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the year. This concern of Paul for his foundations lasted throughout his apostolic ministry. Some years later he would remind the Corinthians that, besides his many other things, he was under daily pressure because of his anxiety for all the churches he had founded. The Acts of the Apostles (17:1-10) could give the impression that Paul’s stay at Thessalonica was brief, but this letter, written shortly after he had left them, gives a different view. His first stay with them must have been prolonged. Paul worked for his living there even though as a messenger of the Gospel he could expect to be supported. The only church he accepted support from was that at Philippi. At the beginning of the letter to the Thessalonians he said that he always mentions them in his prayers and thanks God for their strong, lively faith, active in good works. He goes on remind them that the Good News came to them not only in words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter confidence. He returns to this point in today’s reading, giving as another reason why he thanks God for them is that as soon as they heard the message brought to them as God’s message, they accepted it for what it really is, God’s message (word) and not as human thinking (word), and is still a living power among those who believe it.

Gospel (Matthew 23:1-12). They do not practice what they preach. The scribes and Pharisees featured during Jesus’ public life, but took a more central role after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the priesthood (Sadducees) in 70 A.D. They were the accepted leaders and teachers. It is not clear what exactly is meant by “the chair of Moses”, whether a real chair in the synagogue or simply teaching authority. Jesus distinguished their teaching from their practice, the teaching to be accepted would be the central Mosaic tradition, not the additions of scribal and Pharisaic tradition elsewhere condemned in part by Jesus. The emphasis here is the lack of harmony between teaching and practice, already condemned by Jesus in then Sermon on the Mount. There is strong condemnation of their exhibitionism, in an effort to be regarded as extra pious and religiously observant. Phylacteries were small receptacles containing important words of the Law to be attached to the arm or forehead in keeping with Mosaic law; the four tassels were sewn one at each corner of the cloak, all in keeping with the Law of Moses. It is making these broader and longer that Jesus condemns. Mention is made in the Gospel of the tassels (fringes) of Jesus’ own cloak (Matthew 9:20; 14:36).

The final section of the reading is advice to Jesus’ followers not to imitate, but rather avoid, the terms that had become common among Pharisaic and later rabbinic Jewish teachers and leaders, such as Rabbi (Master), Abba (Father), Teacher, since this could take from Christian awareness of the One Father in heaven, and the only Teacher Christ. Jesus again stresses simplicity and humility.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Priests and their office of preaching.

The words of Malachi 2:7 have resounded down through the centuries with regard to the primary office of bishops and priests, that is their duty to proclaim the Good News. It is given prominence in the Pastoral Rule of Pope by St Gregory the Great. It is often believed that the primary role of priests is the celebration of the Eucharist and of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Recent Church documents stress that this is not so. The Apostolic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (paragraph 25) says that “among the principal duties of bishops, the preaching of the gospel occupies an eminent place”. A little later (paragraph 28) it recalls the same with regard to priests: “By the power of the sacrament of orders, and in the image of Christ the eternal High Priest, they are consecrated to preach the gospel, shepherd the faithful, and celebrate divine worship”. This is spelled out more fully in the same Council’s Decree on the Ministry of Priests (paragraph 4: “The People of God finds its unity first of all through the Word of the living God, which is quite properly sought from the lips of priests (with reference to Malachi 2:7). Since no one can be saved who has not first believed, priests, co-workers with their bishops, have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfil the Lord’s command: ‘Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15). Thus they establish and build up the People of God”.

How priests may preach the good news in the modern world is no easy matter. The words of the Council documents can be taken in conjunction with those of the First Letter of Peter (3:15-16) in the first century to all he faithful: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”. The message of the Gospel is to be preached in the context of the present problems and doubts confronting believers in matters of faith and morals, to confirm their faith in their own hearts and have them prepared, if necessary, respond to present-day objections to it. Attempts to do this must be directed to regular Mass-goers and those who have given up regular Mass attendance. It is also important that the presentation of Christian doctrine be complete, not just restricted to some topics, and done preferably in conjunction with the liturgical readings. Many priests will find it difficult to do this, yet connection within the biblical texts in preaching is indicated, so to have believers and others realize that Church teaching is not her own but that of the early Church and of Christ.