The Church’s first scripture is an excerpt from the Book of the Old Testament Prophet Malachi.
If you were attentive and listening, the scripture passage likely made little sense and came off as a rant. What’s missing is a context for the prophet Malachi’s words- and for that context we have to know about two extraordinary events that happened in the course of Israelite history.
The first event is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon by the armies of the Babylonians in the year 587 BC. This was a catastrophe that haunts the Israelites to this very day. They literally lost everything they believed to be important about their identity as a people- their ancestral lands, the city of Jerusalem, the royal family, the descendants of their greatest king, David, were humiliated and massacred, and the dwelling place of God on earth, the temple of Solomon was desecrated and reduced to a ruin.
Add to all this that the Israelites were rounded up like cattle and marched off as slaves to Babylon where they would languish for years crying out to God for deliverance.
The second event happened in 516 BC, when after long years of exile, the Israelites had returned their ancestral lands and began the long painful process of rebuilding their lives from the ground up. It was in 516 BC that the Israelites built a reduced version of their once great temple, and in doing so re-established the worship that was central and essential to their identity as a people.
These two events are the context for the prophet Malachi’s words- he remembers the events of 587 BC and is speaking about the rebuilding of the temple in 516 BC- and his words to the Israelites, particularly her priests, are words of warning.
You see, Malachi believed that the catastrophe of 587 BC was not an accident, but had its direct cause in the fact that the Israelites had abandoned the worship of the one, true God for idols- false gods- gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors. Idolatry had led to the destruction of Israelites and Malachi held the priests of the Israelites largely responsible for this. In his reckoning- bad priests led to bad worship which led to idolatry which then led to chaos destruction.
So, when in 516 BC, when the temple and worship of the Israelites is finally restored, he has harsh words of warning- “listen up priests, your responsibility is profound and the consequences of your screwing things up are catastrophic. Be warned. God is not mocked nor is God indifferent”.
Now what’s the lesson and what does this scripture from the Prophet Malachi have to do with us?
Remember, the story of the Israelites continues in the Church. The Church is created by Christ as a new kind of Israel and those baptized are created by Christ as a new kind of Israelite. Malachi’s warning reaches across time and space and speaks to us and it is a warning as relevant to us as it was for the Israelites centuries ago- bad priests lead to bad worship which leads to idolatry which leads to destruction. Malachi’s logic holds across time- as true today as it was centuries ago.
Priests are given as their sacred and solemn responsibility leading people in the worship of the one, true God. If they eschew that responsibility, idolatry inevitably takes hold of people’s minds and hearts- and the result of this is never good. The idols that threaten us if our priests fail are not merely mythological beings, but the elevation of our desires, desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors to our ultimate concern. We will make gods of these desires and these gods inevitably wreak destruction in our lives. We might think otherwise, but for the Bible the worst sin is idolatry and worshipping false gods is the most destructive thing we can do. In the Bible, the function of the priest is not parish administration or offering vague spiritual advice, but to act boldly to thwart the worship of false gods and rescue people from the destructive power of idolatry.
The worship of the one, true God happens to us in the Mass, and Christ’s priests are servants of this worship. The Mass is the worship that God wants and it is the worship that has the power to rescue us from the power and influence of false gods. Good priests know this and will do everything they can to lead the people to the worship God in Christ has given to us, the worship that God in Christ wants- the worship of the Mass. That’s our lesson from the Church’s first scripture.
The second scripture is from the New Testament, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. You might remember that we heard an excerpt from this particular letter last week. In these scriptures, the apostle Paul is complimenting the Thessalonian Christians, identifying them as models for believers everywhere and he is also identifying those qualities that make them such good Christians.
One of those qualities that the apostle Paul identifies is the attentiveness and reverence that the Thessalonian Christians have for the Sacred Scriptures, for what we know as the Bible. “In receiving the Word of God you received not a human word, but, as it truly is, the Word of God”. The Scriptures are not just for the Thessalonian Christians interesting historical documents, but the Word of God communicated to them in the words of men- and because of this, they listen carefully when the Scriptures are proclaimed and attend to every word they hear with great care.
Why? Because they believe that in the Scriptures God is making himself known to them in an extraordinary way.
Do you believe this? What have the Scriptures, the Bible come to mean for you?
If you are a Christian, you believe that the Bible is the privileged way of knowing what God wants of you, and further, that the Bible is a God-given way of coming to know who he is and what he is all about. St. Jerome once aptly commented that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. He has got that right! Being a Christian is bottom line about coming to know God in Christ and how well we really know Christ is in direct relationship to how well we know the Scriptures that make him known to us!
Finally, in his Gospel, Christ has some harsh words of judgement to two groups that were very prominent in terms of the religion of the Israelites- the scribes and the Pharisees. Think of the scribes as experts in regards to the laws which directed Israelite religion and the Pharisees as experts in how one would take those laws and apply them to daily life.
Christ is certain that there is something way off about how both the scribes and Pharisees are presenting and practicing the religious law and he is fiercely determined to set them right.
Christ detects a hypocrisy in the scribes and Pharisees- they are not as pious and virtuous as they appear to be. In fact, many are using the religious law of Israel as a subterfuge, a kind of mask, so that we can reap the benefit of appearing to be pious and virtuous, while really being neither. They are using religion for an ulterior motive, specifically so that they can be esteemed and honored. Religion is not a genuine expression of faith, but is instead a means to their own ends, in this case, getting people to give them the respect they think they deserve.
Using religion as a means to our own ego driven ends… Appearing to be religious, rather than actually being religious… Denigrating religion by lashing it to our ulterior motives- this is the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees. And we should not let ourselves off the hook in this regard.
Instead, we should be humble enough to examine our own consciences.
Our religion, the Christian religion, is not given to us by God in Christ so that we can make of it whatever we want. Nor is the Gospel given to us so that we can make it the servant of worldly aspirations, or use it to ratify our ideologies, or advance our political causes or cultural agendas. The purpose of our religion is not to give us what we want, but to order our desires towards what is good and to prepare us to make sacrifices so that we can fulfill the commands of Christ.
When we lose sight of all this, our Christian religion becomes akin to the distorted religion of the scribes and the Pharisees. We become hypocrites. And the judgement that Christ dropped on the scribes and Pharisees, falls with great weight upon us.