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31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
Psalm 131:1-3
1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13
Matthew 23:1-12

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind, and this is the reason we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Ministerial Service of the Priesthood
We expect the best ministerial service our priests and bishops can offer.  This service consists of sacramental ministration, preaching the Gospel, and teaching the doctrine of the Church.  In their ministry, they are servants of God and His Household that is the Kingdom of the Church.  In today's First Reading and Gospel Reading, we hear some unkind words for the priests and leaders of the Old Covenant Church while the Second Reading provides an example of righteous ministerial service. 

In the First Reading, God addresses the priests through the prophet Malachi.  He admonishes them for neglecting their duty to instruct the people in the Law and for showing favoritism to certain members of the congregation.  They have forgotten that they belong to God and are His representatives to the covenant people.

The Responsorial Psalm is a good prayer for every child of God, including priests.  It is a short prayer that offers good advice on how to maintain a close relationship with the Lord.  The psalmist advises that a person be neither proud nor haughty and to find peace for his soul in his loving and humble relationship with God.

The Second Reading is from St. Paul's letter to the church he and his missionary team founded in Thessalonica.  Instead of taking credit for the conversions in Thessalonica for himself, Paul, in humility, graciously refers to the labors of the entire missionary team and gives credit for their success to God.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of His time for serving themselves in putting forward their agendas and self-interests at the expense of serving God and His people.  Jesus upholds the authority of the people's religious leaders as the successors of Moses, but He gives the people a warning to do what they say but not to imitate their actions because they do not practice what they preach.  He condemns the Pharisees' misinterpretation of the Law, their excessive show of piety that is only a sham to put them in a good light, and their delight in being honored and singled out for praise, putting themselves above the common people.

Our priests of the New Covenant order should reflect on these readings as a constructive critique of priests, their ministry, and their leadership within the family of the Church.  Do they fulfill their obligation to teach both the blessings for the obedience of faith as well as the warnings about the punishments for covenant failure?  Do they inspire their parishioners to holiness?  Do they excuse or neglect to preach about certain sins that have become socially accepted practices, or do they have the moral courage to speak out against the mortal sins that secular society embraces like fornication (sex outside of marriage), adultery, and abortion? 

As for the rest of us, we should strive to support our priests, offer constructive criticism in love when needed, and support them in their ministry spiritually and emotionally.  We should also remember that our priests are imperfect human beings like the rest of us, and pray for them by name to succeed in their ministry and to find peace and fulfillment in their service.

The First Reading Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10 ~ Sins of the Priests and Levites
1:14b A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.  2:1 And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, 2 if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse.  [...] 8 You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; you have made void the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts. 9 I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions.  10 Have we not all the one father?  Has not the one God created us?  Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?

The Book of Malachi is the last of the books of the Minor Prophets and the last prophetic book before the beginning of the New Testament Canon.  The spirited writer is unknown.  The book's title "Malachi" is from 3:1 and means "my messenger."  The book was composed after the return of the "faithful remnant" of the exiles from Babylon in about 460 BC.  The Temple was rebuilt and public worship restored.  However, the Levitical chief priests and lesser ministers were failing in their covenant obligations.  The focus of Malachi's message is on religious ritual and the liturgy of worship as an expression of fidelity to Yahweh and His Covenant.

In verse 1, God reproves the priests for not honoring Him and failing to teach the people God's Law (2:8).  They have failed to impartially lead their congregation by showing partiality to some while ignoring others (2:9; see Dt 10:17; Rom 2:11).  He accuses them of not being faithful to the covenant God made with the tribe of Levi concerning their ministerial service (Ex 40:12-15; Lev 2:13; Num 3:12; 18:1-7, 15-19; Dt 18:1-8; 33:8-11; Sir 45:7/8, 15/18-19).  A priest's ministry is not his own; he is the Lord's representative to His people.  God's ordained minister is His messenger (mal'ak), and his instruction to the people should have the wisdom and impartiality of God's Word and His holy Law.  In the Old Covenant, the priest stood before the congregation in the image of redeemed man.  However, in the New Covenant, the burden of right service is even greater since the priest stands before the congregation in the image of Jesus Christ! 

The Responsorial Psalm 131:1-3 ~ The Humble Trust in God
Response: "In you, Lord, I have found my peace."

1 O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty; I busy not myself with great things, nor with things too sublime for me.
Response:
2 Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child.  Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so is my soul within me.
Response:
3 In you, Lord, I have found my peace.  O Israel, hope in the LORD, both now and forever.
Response:

This short psalm should be the daily prayer of every Christian.  We can find internal peace and freedom from anxiety by keeping our focus on the Lord.  If our focus is on God and His Word, we can reject the lures of the secular world and trust in God like a little child in the arms of a loving parent. 

The Second Reading 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13 ~ St. Paul's Ministry Among the Thessalonians
7b We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.  8 With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.  9 You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.  Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. [...]  13 And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

In contrast to the priests Malachi reproves in the First Reading, St. Paul and his missionary team are examples of righteous and humble ministers of the Lord.  St. Paul visited the city of Thessalonica in Macedonia with Sts. Silvanus, Timothy, and the other members of his missionary team during his second missionary journey in about 50 AD (Acts 17:1-13).  It is because Paul views the founding of the church in Thessalonica was a team effort that he writes in the first person plural ("we," "us," or "our").

St. Paul compares his missionary team working among the Thessalonian converts to a mother nursing her children.  Paul and his team gently nurtured the Thessalonians, who were newly reborn in the Sacrament of Baptism, with the Gospel of salvation.  He reminds them of the love they showed the converts as they worked "night and day in order not to burden" any of them in proclaiming the Gospel (verse 9b).  Paul may be referring to their labor to support themselves, so they were not a financial burden to the converts.  Paul usually supported himself as a tent-maker (Acts 18:3; 20:33-34).

In verse 13, St. Paul does not take any credit for the success of their efforts for himself or the team.  He humbly gives all credit for the success of the mission among the Thessalonians to God who was at work in them and in those who received their Gospel message with open hearts.

The Gospel Reading Matthew 23:1-12 ~ Jesus Affirms the Teaching Authority of the Leaders of the Old Covenant Church but Denounces their Practices

1 Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice.  4 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.  5 All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  6 They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, 7 greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' 8 As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.'  You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.  10 Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Christ.  11 The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

The "chair of Moses" in verse 2 refers to the teaching and ruling authority the Pharisees and scribes held over the people in the local Jewish synagogues.  The teaching authority in the Temple belonged to the chief priests.  Josephus wrote that the power of the Pharisees was so great that they were even able to change some liturgical practices in the Temple.  They ended the reciting of the Ten Commandments by the chief priests in the Chamber of Hewn Stone because they said the practice gave the wrong impressing that those commandments were more important than the other articles of the Law.  And later, after Jesus' Resurrection, they changed the day of the week for the observance of the Feasts of Firstfruits and Weeks/Pentecost so those feasts no longer fell on the first day of the week, our Sunday (Antiquities of the Jews, 13.8.4).  As a result of this change, these feasts longer coincided with Jesus' Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the New Covenant community on the Feast of Pentecost.  They were the only two annual holy feasts that had a prescribed day of the week instead of a specific date with a changing day of observance from year to year (Lev 23:5-44).

Jesus upholds the authority of the people's religious leaders as the successors of Moses, but He gives the people a warning to do what they say but not imitate their actions because they do not practice what they preach.  Some of Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees and scribes:

5 All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
The phylacteries (the Greek word for tefillin in Hebrew) were small leather boxes containing Scripture passages that God commanded to be fastened with leather straps to the arm and forehead of a Jewish man during prayer time.  The man wore the arm straps on either the right or left arm and hand.  A left-handed person wrapped the straps on the right arm and hand, and the right-handed person on the left arm and hand (Ex 13:9, 16; Dt 6:8; 11:18).  Like the tassels worn on the four corners of the outer cloak (Num 15:37-39; Dt 22:12), they were signs that identified Jewish men as the people of God.  In obedience to the Law, Jesus wore the tassels on His outer garment (Mt 9:20; 14:36).  These requirements for phylacteries or tassels did not apply to women.

In verses 8-10, Jesus advised the people not to single out their religious leaders for excessive titles of honor and praise that would make them equal to God the Father and the Messiah.  He does not mean to call no one father or teacher.  That would mean one couldn't refer to the head of one's family who is one's male progenitor as "father."  Jesus even referred to Abraham as "father Abraham" (Lk 16:24).  However, men who have those titles should not be held as equal in authority to God or the Messiah (speaking of Himself).  It is a continuation of Jesus' teaching to His disciples on the practice of humility in serving God (Mt 18:1-5; 19:30; 20:16, 25-28).  The truly humble do not seek out special recognition for themselves.  The praise they seek is God's praise.  As St. Peter wrote in his letter to the Church, So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time (1 Pt 5:6).

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2017

Catechism references (* indicates that Scripture is quoted in the citation):
Malachi 2:8-9 (CCC 1540*); 2:10 (CCC 238)
Psalm 131:2-3 (CCC 370*); 131:2 (CCC 239*)
1 Thessalonians 2:13 (CCC 104*, 1349*)
Matthew 23:9 (CCC 2367*); 23:12 (CCC 526*)