Thirty-First 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, but the actual communicator was God.
Malachi did not write at a time of crisis for God’s people, as was the case for other prophets, or when life was filled with peril and destitution. Malachi, nevertheless, shared with all the prophets the opinion that when the people were sluggish in their religious observance, or when they altogether had rejected God, they risked their own well-being.
Lack of fervor, in the estimates of the prophets, was the height of ingratitude. 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. God is the perfect and all-knowing judge. He is merciful, but God does not prevent people from sinning. It is their choice. He also does not interrupt the consequences of sinning.
St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians supplies the second reading. In this reading, Paul reassures the Christians of Thessalonica, to whom the letter is addressed, that he cares deeply for them and especially for their spiritual vitality.
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 happens elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus denounces the Pharisees’ hypocrisy.
The Pharisees were learned in Jewish law and tradition, usually occupying central places in synagogues, regarded as persons very knowledgeable in religious matters, hence the Lord’s reference to the “chair of Moses.” Still, they were humans, subject to temptation. They were not perfect, and they knew it if they were intellectually honest.
Humans always are insecure and confused, burdened by their inadequacies. To compensate, to convince themselves or others of superiority, humans often seek places of privilege, or control over others.
Jesus tells the disciples to serve others. He calls them to be bold. He encourages them. 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, in a position to pronounce on anything and everything. Matthew depicts Jesus always presenting the wisest and most reasonable of judgments on matters that usually perplex others.
In this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus directly addresses the most basic of human inadequacies: the deep fear within us all that we, even unwittingly, will make mistakes and pay the price.
Be strong, the Lord admonishes. There is nothing to fear. Be sincere. Follow the Lord in confidence.
Supporting this view are the readings from First Thessalonians and from Malachi. God always is with us in mercy, love, guidance and protection. He sent to us the prophets, the Apostles, and of course Jesus.
Still, God does not overwhelm us. We voluntarily must turn to God. We must hear God. We must love God. Always crippling us will be our embedded fears and defenses, but in conquering self, we do not leave ourselves at risk. God strengthens us.
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