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Scripture In Depth
Thirty-first Sunday
of Ordinary Time A
November 5, 2017
Reginald H. Fuller


Reading I: Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

The caption to the reading from Malachi provides a fair summary of the first paragraph of this denunciation addressed to the priests of Israel. The prophetic book of Malachi (the name means “my messenger” and is taken from 3:1; the work is really anonymous) was written after the return of the exiles, and is directed against the abuses that marked the restoration of the sacrificial system.

The priestly caste was particularly at fault in this matter. We generally think of the Old Testament priests as offerers of sacrifices. Malachi, however, lays greater stress on instruction, a priestly function no less important.

The relationship between the Old Testament priesthood and the ministerial priesthood as it is known in Catholic Christianity is not a direct one, for Christian priesthood can only be understood from the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ. 

Nevertheless, teaching is a function of both the Old Testament and the Christian priesthood. The Old Testament priests were guardians of the Torah, and just as sacrifice and instruction went on hand in hand in the old dispensation, so sacramental ministrations and teaching go hand in hand in the Christian ministry.

An old-fashioned Anglican dogmatic theologian has written: “The priest’s highest duty is to consecrate the Eucharist, and the next, to give absolution. But the Eucharist must be accompanied by counsel. Therefore, the priest must be a man of holiness, of learning, with a knowledge of human nature; he must know his Bible, and the art of teaching” (C. B. Moss, The Christian Faith [1943] 394).

Despite the caption, however, it appears that this pericope was chosen because of the final paragraph and its opening question: “Have we not all one father?” This question is echoed by our Lord’s statement in the gospel reading: “you have one Father.”

One often hears it said in Christian circles that the teaching of the fatherhood of God was new with Jesus and is unique to Christianity. This is not fair to the Old Testament, as our text from Malachi indicates, or to Judaism.

There is some precedent for Jesus’ teaching on the fatherhood of God in the Old Testament, though it must be admitted that it is not the dominant aspect of its doctrine of God as it was for Jesus, nor does it have the unique features that it has in his teaching. What is unique to Jesus is the relationship with the Father.

 

Responsorial Psalm: 131:1, 2, 3

This is one of the psalms expressing the individual’s trust and confidence in Yhwh. It is a beautiful testimony to the piety of the “poor” in Israel.

Usually we have found that the responsorial psalm is what its name suggests— a response to the Old Testament reading. This time, however, it appears to introduce the second reading.

The psalmist rests in Yhwh like a child on its mother’s bosom, and in a similar image Paul speaks of himself, in his pastoral ministry among the Thessalonians, as being “like a nurse taking care of her children” (see next reading).

 

Reading II: 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13

This passage comes from the part of 1 Thessalonians in which Paul gives thanks to God and recalls his missionary preaching at Thessalonica and his converts’ response to his preaching. This preaching was accompanied by a deep pastoral concern for the Thessalonians; Paul’s preaching of the gospel was not of a “take it or leave it” kind.

Part of this pastoral concern was shown in Paul’s refusal to be an economic burden to the infant community. He worked night and day, he says, to earn his living rather than make demands upon them. The Book of Acts explains that Paul worked as a tentmaker.

This behavior, of course, is no universal prescription for the ministry, and Paul himself knew the dominical precept that the laborer is worthy of his hire, but he had special reasons for not availing himself of this privilege.

Practice in this matter has varied in the history of the Christian Church. In the Western world we are mostly familiar with the “clergyman,” a member of a paid profession. But circumstances are changing, and the idea of tentmaking priests is being seriously discussed again, and even beginning to be practiced to some extent.

There was also the priest-worker experiment in France. Such a shift would not in itself be contrary to either Scripture or ancient tradition. As for Paul, it must be a matter of expediency—whatever best serves the preaching of the gospel and continued pastoral care.

The third paragraph of this reading contains a whole theology of preaching.

The Thessalonians received the proclamation of Paul and his colleagues, not as the word of human beings, but for what it really was—the Word of God.

Preaching is the Word of God given in and through the words of human beings. It requires, on the part of the preacher, fidelity to the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ (Paul, as an apostle, is a fountainhead of that witness) and prayer that God will take the feeble words of the preacher and make them vehicles of his word.

On the part of the listeners, preaching requires the discernment of faith, that they may hear the word of God given in and through the human words of the preacher, and prayer that the word of may bring forth fruit in their lives.

Both preacher and congregation need to pray for the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23 is a lengthy denunciation of the Pharisees. It makes very painful reading, and we wonder today—especially since popes’ laudable attempts to improve relations between the Christian Church and the Jewish community—how Jesus could have indulged in such vitriolic condemnation of religious leaders who, as Jewish scholars are constantly reminding us, were for the most part good people.

Several considerations must be kept in mind. First, Matt 23, as it stands, was compiled by the evangelist himself; it is not a speech actually delivered by Jesus. The cumulative effect is created not by Jesus but by the evangelist himself.

Second, Matthew was involved in the struggle between his own Jewish-Christian church and the rabbis who, after the fall of Jerusalem, were consolidating their authority in Judaism. It is that struggle that is reflected here.

Third, condemnation of one’s opponents as hypocrites was not confined to the Christian side. The rabbis frequently retorted in kind.

Fourth, in compiling this speech, Matthew drew on traditional material. He started with the quite short rebuke of the scribes (not the whole Pharisaic party!) in Mark 12:38-40.

Some of the woes against the Pharisees come from the source common to Matthew and Luke (Matt 23:13 par.; 23 par.; 25-27 par.; 29-31 par.). But much of it comes from Matthew’s special source that reflects the views of a Jewish-Christian community rather than those of Jesus himself.

There was certainly an element of anti-Pharisaic teaching in Jesus; he denounced some Pharisees, particularly the Pharisaic scribes, for hypocrisy. But, as Luke’s special tradition also shows, he could take a quite favorable view of other Pharisees, and they could be friendly toward him.

We must keep the whole thing in proportion and see this chapter in its historical context. An element that was present in Jesus’ teaching has been exaggerated out of all proportion for historical reasons that no longer obtain.

In applying such material to the life of the church today, we have to remember that, to quote the title given to a course of sermons by Hoskyns, “We are the Pharisees.”

We must allow such denunciations to be addressed as warnings to us, especially to those of us who exercise a leadership role in the Church—the clergy and, in particular, the bishops.

We, like the rabbis, are the guardians of tradition, only ours is the apostolic tradition and theirs was a tradition going back to Moses. We also are in constant danger of not living up to our own teaching. We enjoy ostentation, flattery, special insignia, and honorific titles.

(The attempt to reduce episcopal regalia in the Roman communion is a move in the right direction and to be applauded; it has hardly hit the Anglican episcopate yet, apart from a mild suggestion at the Lambeth conference that English bishops should drop the title “My Lord.”)

Non-Catholics are often puzzled by the seeming contradiction between Matt 23:9 and the practice of addressing priests as “Father.” We should not dismiss their puzzlement too lightly.

If “Father” is insisted upon as a personal distinction by the priest himself, or if the person using it does so without remembering that it means that the priest is the sacramental sign of the presence of God’s self as Father, then such a usage would come under the condemnation of Matthew’s injunction (it is hardly from Jesus himself).

Anglicans should note that the Book of Common Prayer uses the ministerial title “Father” very sparingly—only in address to the bishop in a liturgical context when he is clearly acting as the sacramental embodiment of the fatherhood of God. Should it not therefore be used only in a functional context?

Reginald H. Fuller
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 198-202.

Preaching the Lectionary

Liturgical Press


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