31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Malachi provides this weekend’s first reading. The prophet’s name, Malachi, reveals his role. In Hebrew it means “messenger of God.” As a prophet, he brought God’s message to the people.
Often in prophetic writings, as in this weekend’s reading, the prophets wrote in a way in which God spoke in the first person. The prophets presented themselves merely as earthly instruments through whom God spoke. The actual communicator was God.
Malachi did not write at a time of extraordinary crisis for God’s people, as was the case of the author of the first section of Isaiah, or for that the bad circumstances that surrounded many other prophets. Malachi, nevertheless, shared with all the prophets the opinion that the people were sluggish in their religious observance, or that they altogether had rejected God.
Such lack of fervor, in the estimates of the prophets, was inexcusable. By contrast, God always was merciful, always faithful to the Covenant.
This weekend’s reading, again with God’s words given in the first person, accuses the people of sin. As God is the perfect and all-knowing judge, it is an accusation of complete fact. God warns. Such sin will lead only to doom for the people.
In St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul reassures them that he cares deeply for them. He says that he abundantly and constantly has shown this care.
Essential to these feelings of care and love has been Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. He could do nothing greater for the Thessalonians than to share with them the saving story of Jesus.
For its third reading, the Church presents St. Matthew’s Gospel. This passage is the last in a series of stories in which Jesus discusses, or argues, with the Pharisees or with others. As often elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus denounces the Pharisees’ hypocrisy.
Pharisees were learned in Jewish law and tradition. They probably often occupied a central seat in synagogues, reserved for a person very knowledgeable in religious matters, hence the Lord’s reference to the “chair of Moses.”
The story goes to the root of human fault and human nature. Insecure and confused in their inadequacies, humans so often seek places of privilege, indeed even control over others. Hypocrisy and pomposity mask this insecurity.
Jesus tells the disciples that they must serve others. Nothing else is more important. He calls them to be bold. It is no summons to doom. With God’s grace, nothing needs to be feared.
For weeks, in these biblical readings from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has assumed the role of the final authority, of the ultimate judge. Jesus pronounces on the most supreme of all laws, the law of Moses.
For Matthew, Jesus judges as the Son of God, able as such to pronounce on anything and everything.
Matthew also depicts Jesus as always responding with the wisest and most reasonable of judgments on matters that usually perplex others.
In this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus pierces through the folly of inadequate human understanding and human fear. Be strong, the Lord admonishes, there is nothing to fear.
Supporting this view are the readings from First Thessalonians and from Malachi. First of all, God has not left us adrift on a stormy sea. He always has entered our lives with mercy, love, guidance and protection, in the prophets, the Apostles, and, of course, in Jesus.
God is with us, but God does not overwhelm us. We voluntarily must turn to God. We must hear God. We must love God. It will be difficult, as we must forsake many deeply embedded fears and defenses. But, even in this conquest of self, God will strengthen us.
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