“Do not be guided by the Scribes and Pharisees”
(Readings: Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for this Sunday's Mass give a warning against particular dangers in the spiritual life which can affect every Christian. To begin Mass let us think of the times when we've tended to fall away from God and ask him to forgive us and to strengthen our faith.
The dominant note in the readings this week is a note of condemnation and warning, aimed at those who are failing, in different ways, in their duties as religious leaders.
In the first reading the prophet Malachi finds that the priests - the men who offered the sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem - have lost a lot of their original zeal for the faith and he accuses them of abandoning their main duties.
They were failing to instruct the people properly in the elements of the faith. They had become corrupt and sloppy in celebrating the Temple liturgy. And they were giving out moral advice which was incompatible with the Chosen People's Covenant with God - condoning divorce, for example. "You are betraying the Covenant, profaning the Covenant," says Malachi.
Typical prophetic language: fierce, blunt, roused to indignation in the face of what he sees as a falling-away from the founding ideals and the founding vision of the Hebrew faith.
The tasks of the Temple priests in Jerusalem were very different from the role of priests now in the Catholic Church, but there are still enough similarities for us to be able to draw useful lessons.
The Catholic clergy (and in many ways this is true of the clergy of any religion) have the same kind of responsibilities that Malachi mentions in the first reading. They're custodians of the faith and they have a duty to remain faithful to the content of that teaching and to pass it on. They’re not meant to instruct people in their own personal opinions or water down the teaching so as to make themselves popular.
Similarly, the Church’s priests have to carry out their liturgical functions conscientiously, not carelessly or thoughtlessly. The priest offers sacrifice on behalf of the whole community. That means that the liturgy and the ceremonies and so on are not his to manipulate or to re-shape according to his own whims or the desire, perhaps, to exhibit his own personality.
Rather the priest is a steward, or a servant, of the sacred mysteries. He doesn't own them, and he can't do what he wants with them, without - as Malachi says - betraying his proper purpose. It's the liturgy that determines the priest's role, not the other way round.
When we incorporate ideas and practices from secular culture and the Mass becomes a social occasion, or takes on the feel of a chat-show or an entertaining performance, we're destroying the proper purpose of communal worship: to place us in communion with God. And for us that surely applies above all to the liturgy of the Mass, where we receive, now, exactly what the disciples received at the Last Supper.
The essential role of the priests is a role of service and stewardship. They’re servants of the community, certainly, but not in the sense that they have to give the community what it wants or what it dictates. First and foremost they're servants of God's word, and God's will, and the service they have to perform for the community is to faithfully announce God's message of salvation: "God's message," St Paul says emphatically in the second reading, "and not some human thinking".
It’s useful to call that to mind especially at the present time, when we're constantly being told that the priests have to "modernise" their role, that they’re not primarily sacred functionaries, that they’ve got to be skilled managers and "facilitators", drawing out the talents of others.
Let's not lose sight of this basic point of St. Paul's: the Church exists to faithfully represent God's message, not to facilitate our human - often purely self-serving - schemes and plans.
That brings us onto the gospel, where Jesus himself, like Malachi, is also speaking in a prophetic vein, forcefully denouncing the diseased religious attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees.
There are two things we need to remember about the Pharisees. First of all, they loom large in the gospels as an example of diseased spirituality. The gospel writers used the example of the Pharisees to warn the members of the Christian community about the dangers of the Pharisaical mentality and the Pharisaical outlook.
The second thing we need to remember takes on a particular significance for the Church at the present time: the Pharisees were laypeople.
We've got this idea, because we picture them wearing fancy robes or whatever, that the Pharisees were a type of clergy. But Pharisaism was in fact a lay movement. Christ certainly had his conflicts with the official religious leaders, but the group of people who figure in the gospels as Jesus' main opponents were a group of laymen, not the clergy.
As with the first reading, and the preaching of the prophet Malachi, Jesus' harsh words in the gospel also have a lesson for us in terms of the state of the modern Church. What, after all, was the essence of the Pharisees' warped spirituality?
It wasn't just that they were pompous, self-important people, or religious snobs. The essence of the Pharisees' attitude was that while they thought other people were sinners, they themselves weren't. Other people might stand in need of God's forgiveness and grace, but not them. That was the heart of their approach to God, and that was why Jesus inevitably collided with them.
Is there a danger in the Church today of fostering these complacent, self-regarding attitudes? I believe so.
There’s a tendency in the modern Church to talk all the time as if everything depends on what we do. Meetings, conferences, schemes of “renewal”, all the solemn discussion about the talents and skills and professional techniques needed to reform the Church’s life.
The talkers might not be wearing broad phylacteries and long tassles, as scorned by Christ in today’s gospel, but the general attitude nevertheless seems to be: "shut up, everyone; shut up, God - we're in charge now".
The danger is that instead of forming communities of dedicated disciples, we're creating a new class of Christian Pharisees instead. And yet the reason why we have so many passages in the gospels like the one we just heard today is precisely to warn us against that danger.
So these three readings today have a warning for every member of the Church, clergy and laypeople. All of us are all equally called to holiness. We’re called to humbly receive God’s Kingdom, not to construct little empires of churchy activism under our own steam. We’re called to be followers and disciples, not scribes and Pharisees.
When we get that firmly into our heads I believe we'll start to see some real deepening of faith and practice in our parish communities.