Lectionary commentary: thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary time


Sitting in the seat of Moses


A reading from the prophet Malachi, 1:14-2:2. 8-10

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 131

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 2:7-9. 13

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 23:1-12

A reading from the prophet Malachi, 1:14-2:2. 8-10

I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.

And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honour to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings.

But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.

Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?

The word of the Lord.

There is need to do other than listen to these words of Malachi. There is only the need to sit in silence and weep. Malachi, whose name means “angelic messenger”, demands that we must face great sinfulness. For the wretched among bishops and priests did not listen to the great King, the Lord of Hosts.

They were called to give honour to my Name. A curse will be given them, the curse of God. Their blessings will be heard in heaven as curses for they did not keep my ways.

They have caused many to stumble by their instruction. They corrupted the covenant of Levi, the priesthood of old, the ancient and eternal covenant of ordination. For this God has delivered them to be despised and abased before all the people.

Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then is our Father in heaven dishonoured? And why are we, God’s children, robbed of our dignity by those who have not taken God’s honour to heart?

Was Jesus thinking of Malachi when he warned that,

… if anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung round his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:6 [1]

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 131

R/.Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me. R/.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me. R/.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore. R/.

A psalm of simplicity, a psalm to shame the proud. It is not a prayer of an overweening heart. It is a prayer spoken from a humble soul. The image of a calm and quieted child comforted on its mother’s breast (not with its mother) beautifully suggests contentment. There is no striving after great things, no aspiring after things too great and too marvellous. There is peace as of a baby fed and snuggling in quiet sleep. The prayer ends in a hope that all the Lord’s people wait contentedly in sure and certain expectation all will be well.

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 2:7-9. 13

[But] we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

For you remember, brothers and sisters, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

The word of the Lord.

Today’s Responsorial Psalm might very well be a prayer of Paul and Silvanus and Timothy. They did not come among the few Thessalonians who heard them with flattering words.They did not greedily seek reward or glory, making grandiose demands, flaunting their authority as apostles of Christ. Rather,

we were gentle among you.

Some early manuscripts copies of this letter read,

we were infants among you.

What is clear is that these gentle apostles were among them with all the gentleness and all the warmth of a nursing mother. Not only did they gift these pagans with the gospel of God but did so with earnestness that expressed their own conviction and their love.

These strangers who listened to the gospel of God became brothers and sisters of each other and of the three utterly dedicated apostles who had come to them. Paul (and his companions) did not write “brothers and sisters” by way of mere convention. While they were proclaiming the gospel of God they were well aware that they were, with God’s grace, creating a new people. The gospel of God bound men and women together in a godly embrace that directed their hearts and minds and souls, not only to God but to each other. And, let us note, with all the power of the Holy Spirit.

The word of God given them by these three apostles made them a new creation, a people called into the kingdom of God. While the phrase the kingdom of God is everywhere in the Gospels, it occurs less that ten times in the authentic writings of St. Paul. We know from the Lord’s Prayer that the phrase means “doing God’s will on earth as God in heaven insists”. Those to whom the gospel is proclaimed become proclaimers and, united as brothers and sisters, together are created one voice in the world singing the glory of God.

What we hear from these three strangers who turned up in the bustling city of Thessalonica is a celebration of the joy and wonder of what God achieves when God’s word is heard, and embraced. What we see in these three men is gentleness, men unashamed to be compared to nursing mothers caring for their children. These men laboured and toiled night and day, not to be a burden, but, by their conduct, to be holy and blameless before them and before God. These few lines of Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, for all time, witness to what apostles must be if they are fit to be known as proclaimers of the gospel of God.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The Gospel of the Lord.

God forbid that the Church of God, the Church of Jesus, an earthly home of the Holy Spirit, should be ruled by scribes and Pharisees. In today’s Gospel of the Lord God, Jesus declares to the world (the crowds) and to his learner-apprentices (disciples) what must not be. To be sure, listening is imperative. For the very first commandment to those who ascended the mountain of God was and is:

Listen to him!

Matthew 17:5

But what if those who sit on the seat of Moses do not practice what they preach? Should we listen to them? Jesus accuses scribes and Pharisees of the worst hypocrisy. Look to the charges:

They tie up heavy burdens
they lay them on people’s shoulders
they move no a finger to lessen the burden
they parade with broad phylacteries and long fringes
they seek seats of honour at feasts
and in the community of the people they reserve for themselves
the best seats.

According to Matthew’s construction of what we call Holy Week, Jesus makes his accusations in the Temple precincts. The words we hear today are directed to potential disciples and to potential apostles (disciples). Pharisees and their scribes represent for Matthew Jewish teachers in his time and in his place. Matthew is addressing the Christian congregation in Antioch. He has edited the words of Jesus accordingly. His Gospel became the catechism of the Church and his words speak to Christian communities today and every day. If there were Jewish Christians in Antioch (and there were) who longed for the old days of traditional piety, then Matthew has words for them. The community of Jesus, as he understood it to be, was essentially an outgoing missionary project. Christians were called to the future, not the past. They were strictly ordered to go to the nations, to teach, to baptise with the same authority that had been given to Jesus:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Matthew 28:18

Not the authority of scribes, no matter how learned nor the counsel of pious Pharisees. Matthew’s Christians, everyone of them, have been given authority from on high, the very authority of Jesus, to go,

… make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19-20

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:20

They do not go alone. They do not go wearing the phylacteries of the past. They do not wear the fringes of human learning. They do not go in expectation of the best seats. They go with Jesus and as Jesus, the one who came not to be served but to serve.

Perhaps the last word should be left to the Malachi, the angel of God:

And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honour to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

[1] The Revised English Bible translation.