|31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 1:14--2:2, 8-10
Psalms 131:1, 2, 3
First Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13
So as to be more receptive to God’s word and the Eucharist, imagine Jesus’ speaking to his close friends, the Disciples. Upon his upper arm is tied a little box, a phylactery, which contains a reminder from the law of Moses that the God of the Jews is the one and holy God. In his hand, Jesus holds the whole book containing the prescriptions for Jewish cultic and social life.
In the other hand Jesus holds a “wider” Phylactery which he uses to demonstrate how the Pharisees wore symbols of God’s presence, but to their own personal advantage. Jesus then warns his friends not to parade their faith so as to gain honor and personal advancement.
We are invited by these readings to a religious authenticity which is not the same as professional exactness nor expectational perfectionism. We are invited also to a humility which is not the same as self-debasement nor smug inferiority. With such scriptural beckonings, we may be moved to pray for a spirit of truth and freedom.
True humility is truth about who we are in God’s eyes and a letting go of the comfortable, but often depressing, sadness which comes from living our own belittling lies about ourselves. One can exalt one’s self by false humiliations. We pray in preparing for the Eucharist to receive what God says about us all and us as individuals. The freedom for which we pray also is a freedom from the trappings which portray rather than display our relationship with God.
The prophet Malachi, in the First Reading, proclaims the word from God about God’s anger at the Jewish priests for their lack of attention to their cultic duties. Our reading begins near the end of the first chapter, but what we do not hear is how the priests have been cheating. They have been bringing to the altar of sacrifice blind, diseased and even stolen animals which nobody else would want. So they make a sacrilege instead of a true spiritual sacrifice. This inattentiveness to the sacred duties reflects their continual inattentiveness to their other sacred obligations of caring for God’s people. Unless they change their hearts their actions will be a curse and God will throw the dung from these unacceptable animals in their faces and sweep them all away with their ashes.
The Gospel is a summary indictment of the ways of the Pharisees. They do have the teaching authority based on the writings of Moses and those teachings are to be followed. Their callings to this cultic authority have collectively raised them from being servants of the Word of God to their being served by the people of God. Places of honor, titles of prestige and false symbols of piety are to be avoided.
One of the harshest things my dear father would say about somebody was that that they sat in the front pew. This was a strange comment until we asked him about it in our older years. We always thought it was his excuse to sit always in the last pew at Mass. He told us that we sat back there in case there was a fire and we could help everybody else out after we got out.
Those to whom he was referring, as “front-pewers” were those whom he knew left their religion and faith in those same pews and went out as if they hadn’t been touched by grace at all. Now this might sound a bit judgmental on my father’s part, a facility of which he had quite developed over the years. It seems to be a quite universal reality though, as most Catholics resist taking their places near the front pews. Maybe they are afraid of fires too or fear being judged as “front-pewers”. There are many ways to manifest our following of Jesus which are seen for what they are besides these show-off shams.
What Jesus says about humbling ourselves so to be exalted needs some tending. In the ways of Jesus, humbling means being honest about what has been received. Those who exalt themselves have a dishonesty about what they have achieved. They are their own source and define themselves and asked to be defined by others, according to their achievements. The ego is always with us and that is not the question here. The humbled person also has an ego, but knows where things come from and what they are for.
The truly humble person does not ask anything or anybody to give them their identity. They can sit in the front or back or stand aside and all the while be grateful that they are and who they are in God’s eyes and their own. The exalted persons needs propping and so they spend their lives taking their temperatures in other peoples’ mouths. Maybe this is a bit judgmental on my part, (I learned well at my father’s feet), those who seem to “exalt” themselves do have an ego problem, but opposite from what it appears to be. Their self-perception is cloudy or minimal and so they need to be saluted in the places of honor and thirst for titles of arrival. This thirst and lust for identity can not be satisfied and so I imagine their going from church to church on a Sunday and sitting in front pews at each stop. They can spend their whole lives wondering who they are and wandering to grab it. Grabbing versus receiving might be the defining gesture towards which Jesus invites us as we sit where ever in the community of believers.
“Lord, you will show me the path of life and fill me with joy in your presence.” Psalm 16
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