31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A-November 5, 2023

 

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A-November 5, 2023

Malachi 1: 14b – 2: 2b, 8-10; 1Thessalonians 2: 7b-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

 

Theme: How Good Leaders of God’s People Should Be

Today’s readings invite all of us, especially all those in leadership professions like the Church leaders, to meditate on the virtue of humility and the gift of self-giving to those we serve. In the Gospel, Jesus spoke of the Scribes and the Pharisees of his time as bad examples of religious leaders. He asked the crowds and his disciples not to imitate them. Likewise, in our first reading, the prophet Malachi prophesized to the Levitical priests and warned them of being bad priests as they violated their covenant with God. Saint Paul, in our second reading, speaks of himself and his companions as good examples of leaders. Today, we have Church leaders, political leaders, family leaders, and all those in leadership positions. Note that all of us are leaders for one another. We are called to be good leaders. Therefore, let us follow the example of Saint Paul by serving with humility and giving ourselves to the people we serve.

Let us keep track of where we are at in the Gospel of Matthew to better understand today’s passage. Jesus entered Jerusalem and drove out all those engaged in selling and buying there.  The Jewish leaders questioned his authority (chap. 21: 1-27). In his response, he told them three parables in a row: the parable of the Two Sons (Chap. 21: 28-32), the parable of the Tenants (chap. 21: 33-46), and the parables of the Wedding Banquet (chap. 22: 1-14). Through these parables, he taught them that because they did not believe in him, the kingdom of heaven that he came to establish on earth was being taken away from them and given to the prostitutes, tax collectors, and all sinners who repent. Being angry against Jesus, the Jewish leaders plotted to get Jesus arrested and condemned. Matthew lines up three questions that different Jewish religious leaders asked Jesus to entrap him in order either to get him arrested and condemned or to shame him publicly and have the Jewish population disapprove of him. The first question was asked by the unholy alliance of the Pharisees and Herodians regarding whether it was lawful or not to pay tax to Ceasar (chap. 22: 15-22). The second question came from the Sadducees about marriage and resurrection (chap. 22: 23-33). The last question, asked by one expert of the law mandated by the Pharisees, was to know which of the commandments is the greatest (chap. 22: 34-40). Jesus escaped all their traps. His answers silenced and amazed them. Next, it was the turn for Jesus to ask the Pharisees double interrelated questions. The first one was to know whose son the Messiah was. They said, “David’s. in his second question, Jesus quoted Psalm 110: 1 where David called the Messiah ‘Lord”. Then, Jesus asked, if David called him ‘Lord’, how can the Messiah be his son? Matthew concludes that section by saying that no one was able to answer Jesus a word and no one dared to ask him any more questions (chap. 22: 41-46). After this episode comes the final section of the narrative part of the fifth book of the Gospel, which is a denunciation by Jesus of the Scribes and Pharisees (chap. 23: 1-39). Our Gospel story is the first part of this section.

It is important to note that in Jesus’ time, it was the Sadducees who oversaw the Jerusalem priesthood. Because they were not fulfilling well their priestly role, the Scribes and Pharisees who did not have any Scriptural mandate, nevertheless started functioning as catechists and religious educators. Surprisingly, Jesus, at the beginning of our Gospel story, first, encourages the crowds and his disciples to do and observe all things whatsoever the Scribes and Pharisees teach them. Why does not Jesus ask his people to just ignore them with their teaching since they do not have any Scriptural mandate? The reason is that the Scribes and Pharisees “have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.” (V. 2, NABRE). The “chair of Moses” is a reference to the need for an authoritative interpretation of sacred law in each generation. Since the Mosaic law was still in force at that time, Jesus recognized the need for authoritative religious instruction and recommended his contemporaries to do and observe their teaching.

Second, even though Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do and observe the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, he asked them, however, not to follow the example. He describes the reason why the crowds and his disciples should not follow their example: it is because they “preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’” (vv. 3-7).

Today, many Christians ask whether to do and observe what the priests preach to the faithful, and what the schoolteachers, religious educators (catechists), and parents teach the children if they are reputed as bad persons. Jesus gives us an answer: we should do and observe the virtues that they teach us, but we should not follow their example.

Our first reading talks about the same topic. Note that Malachi prophesized to the people of Judah after they had returned from their exile in Babylon. Although they occupied their land, they were forbidden to establish their hereditary king of the line of David. So, politically speaking, they were still ruled by the Persian emperor or his representatives. That is why, as the Mosaic law had intended, the priests took a more active role in governing the people. They had three prominent duties: to bless the people, to instruct them, and to judge (or decide) disputes among them. Regrettably, our first reading passage reports that these priests were abusing their authority in these three duties. God threatens judgment on them unless they turn back to God and give glory to his name.    

Both the first and Gospel readings are particularly meaningful to the leaders of the Church but also to all the leaders like parents, schoolteachers, catechists, everyone in any leadership profession, and all of us because we are somehow leaders for each other. This liturgy of the Mass does not only blame us for misusing our leadership positions but also councils us on how to be good leaders of the people of God. The first council comes from Jesus himself in the second part of our Gospel story. He advises his disciples and us to not be called rabbi, father, or master. (Matthew 23: 8-10). Jesus here does not mean that we should not use all those titles; he uses a figure of speech called “hyperbole” to mean that we should be humble and servants of the people we lead.  He makes it clear when he says, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23: 11-12).

The second council is that of Saint Paul in our second reading. Talking to the believers of Thessalonica, Saint Paul says that he and his companions minister to them “as a nursing mother cares for her children.” Note that the nursing mother feeds her baby with her very self. Likewise, Paul and his companion do not share only the Word of God with the Thessalonians, but they also share “our very selves as well.” (1 Thessalonians 2: 8). Here Paul councils us to observe the virtue of self-gift when we lead God’s people.

Let us pray to God during this Mass for all the Church leaders and for all of us that we should be good leaders of God’s people by being humble, servants, and by giving our very selves for the people we lead. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

 

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