Commentary on the Readings
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – November 5, 2017
Devout and religious, but far from God
At the time of Jesus there were many Jewish sects. Some are also mentioned in the Gospels: the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots.... All of them disappeared except the Pharisees who survived the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the catastrophe of 70 AD. Without the Pharisees, Israel would no longer exist.
When we hear of them, the invective of Jesus immediately resounds in our ears: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites." But were the members of this sect really a repository of evil and wickedness? The people worshiped them for their knowledge of the sacred Scriptures and their ascetic austerity. They were considered legitimate masters, enlightened leaders and, without their support, it was not possible to win the sympathy and the consent of the people.
They were faithful to God and respectful of all moral laws which they scrupulously and blamelessly observed. They would have been the religious group closer to Jesus. Instead they became his fiercest opponents. How so?
Some of them—perhaps many—from the early years of the church, were converted (Acts 15:5). However, entering the Christian community, they brought with them the legalistic mentality, the religious formalism, the moral rigor, the conviction of obtaining salvation by their own good works. Above all, their image of God was that of a stern and strict judge, incompatible with the God preached by Jesus.
The Pharisees are not missing. They will never disappear, because "a Pharisee" is hidden in every disciple. When he re-emerges, he spreads his yeast of death, a yeast against which one must be on guard (Mt 16:6).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"The Pharisee is devout, religious, blameless, and yet, paradoxically, away from God."
The author of the book of Malachi lives in a time of religious decline. Returning from Babylon, the Israelites commit themselves, even if rather grudgingly, to rebuild the temple. Then, because of the serious difficulties encountered, they are discouraged. They lose confidence in God, neglect prayer and they fall into religious apathy. The consequence is the decline of moral life. Corruption reigns in all environments. Injustices are committed; divorces are multipied, the workers are exploited. Many are resigned, but an anonymous prophet called Malachi, which means "angel of the Lord," acts to remedy the deplorable situation. He identifies first of all the responsible ones: they are the priests of the temple, guilty of serious crimes.
The indictment of the prophet begins with the complaint of their unfaithfulness in the performance of religious function.
They offered to the Lord blind animals, lame lambs, sick kids, stolen animals (Mal 1:8-14). It is true that, unlike the pagan gods, the God of Israel has never asked for sacrifices and burnt offerings. Through the mouth of the Psalmist he said: "I need no bull from your stalls, nor he-goat from your pens. I need not tell you if I were hungry, for mine is the world and all that it contains." (Ps 50:9-12).
However, even the useless gifts (we make many of them) express feelings and emotions and, if they are made, they must be chosen with care.
Offering defective, crippled and deformed victims, the priests were seeking profit. They were pretending to save and deriving benefits from the donations of the faithful. Thus they were cultivating in people the idea that God was insignificant, petty, and that we could make fun of him.
The reading begins with a solemn intervention of the Lord who presents himself in all his majesty: "For I am a great King, and my name is respected through all the nations" (Mal 1:14). It is the image that man must have of God if he does not want to recoil on himself and his own pettiness.
A severe punishment awaits the priests for having given to the people a very deformed image of God. They will be deprived of the sweetest and perhaps the most apprecitated of their duties, being mediators of the Lord’s blessings. Their blessings will not only be rendered ineffective, but will turn into curses (v. 2).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 8-10) the priests are accused of an even greater crime: "The lips of the priest speak of knowledge—said Malachi—and the Law must be found in his mouth" (v. 7). Their duty was to point to the people the journey of life. They, instead, have strayed from the right path and, by their teaching, caused the people who trusted them to stumble.
To protect the simple people from this deception, God intervenes and exposes their hypocrisy and promises: “I let all the people despise you and consider you unworthy.” I will make sure that no one esteems you, that no one respects you.
In these few verses Paul outlines his behavior as a messenger of the gospel.
The first feature of his apostolate is dotted with a moving picture: for you Thessalonian—he says—we were gentle with you as a nursing mother (v. 7). And so great is our concern that we are ready to give you even our very life (v. 8).
The second element which characterizes Paul’s apostolic action is his disinterest. With justifiable pride, he recalls having preached the gospel free of charge: "When we preached the Gospel, we worked day and night so as not to be a burden to you" (v. 9).
The following verses are not found in today's reading (it’s a pity because they highlight an often misunderstood aspect of the personality of Paul: his tenderness). After reminding the Thessalonians of having behaved with them as a mother, he says he also was a father: "We warned each of you as a father warns his children; we encouraged you and urged you to adopt a way of life worthy of God who calls you to share his own glory and kingdom" (vv. 11-12). The mothers feed their children—and Paul nurtured the Thessalonians with the food of God's word. The fathers educate and Paul instructed them with his example. He did not limit himself to exhort them with words; he also practiced first what he taught. Without fear of contradiction, he can affirm: "You are witnesses with God that we were holy, just and blameless toward all of you" (v. 10).
How did the Thessalonians respond to his care? The reading’s last verse tells us: "On receiving our message, you accepted it, not as human teaching, but as the word of God" (v. 13).
This statement summarizes the three stages of the path that leads to faith. There is, first, the proclamation of the word of God, which is not communicated by angels or by visions, but through human messengers, like Paul. Then there is the listening and finally adherence to this word, though transmitted by people, it is really the word of God. The Apostle only applies to himself the words of Jesus: "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me; and he who rejects me, rejects the one who sent me" (Lk10:16).
The passage offers several points of reflection to those who carry out the ministry of the Word (the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, Eph 5:11). They are being asked to serve the community with the love, kindness, love of a mother, to be models of life, to behave in an exemplary manner, as fathers, to provide their services in a disinterested manner, without seeking any material benefit.
If we read the whole chapter from which this passage is taken, we cannot but remain puzzled by the harsh language used by Jesus. As a mournful refrain the invective returns to his lips seven times: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites." We are not accustomed to hearing him punctuate on people in this way. We also have the impression that his threats are excessive. It does not appear that the scribes and Pharisees could be charged of all the crimes attributed to them. They were proud and fiery of their righteousness, paraded in front of everyone. It is difficult to recognize them in the controversial description Matthew does of them. Paul, educated according to the spirituality of this school, boasted that he was "with regard to the Law, a Pharisee. As for being righteous according to the Law, I was blameless" (Phil 3:4-6); "I have lived as a Pharisee—he declared—in the most rigorous sect of our religion" (Acts 26:5), and he wrote to the Romans: "I can testify that they are zealous for God" (Rom 10:2).
Finally, even if the presentation made of them were correct, we wonder what sense it makes to propose today for Christians to meditate on the long list of accusations against the Pharisees of two thousand years ago.
It is important to be aware of the literary genre of this page, if one does not want to lose the message not addressed to the Jews of Jesus' time, but to Christian communities of today. The Master's words are harsh because the denounced danger is serious. The "Pharisee" is a typical character: he represents a way of thinking, judging, acting opposite to the Gospel; the arguments and beliefs of the Pharisees infiltrate subtly among the disciples and are easily assimilated.
In order to approach the text correctly, we check first of all to whom Jesus is addressing or directing his seven terrible "woes". The answer seems obvious: the recipients are the scribes and Pharisees of his time. But it is not so. From the first verse of the chapter it is clear that Jesus is talking to "the crowds and his disciples." They are those who are at risk of behaving like "Pharisees." We are now being called into question by his reproaches.
The passage being proposed today does not include the hardest part of the discourse, that of the seven "Woe to you." They expose, in a dramatic crescendo, the contradictions of the self-righteous behavior: from shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s face, not entering themselves and not allowing others to have access to it, until that of killing the prophets (vv. 13-32). However, these few verses are enough to identify some characteristic aspects of Phariseeism and to verify, as in a mirror, if, where and how the Pharisees persist in our communities.
He is a Pharisee, first of all, who occupies another’s chair (v. 2).
A basalt seat was found in the synagogue of Corozaim. Apparently it was used it by the scribe in charge of explaining the Scriptures. In every synagogue there was one similar to that. It was called "the chair of Moses" because it was believed that, in the words of the rabbi who was sitting there, the same Moses taught the law to the people.
Jesus uses the image of this chair to outline the first negative characteristic of those belonging to the sect of the Pharisees: the abuse of authority.
The book of Deuteronomy says that Moses’ successors—those given the charge to convey to the people the word of God—are the prophets (Dt 18:15.18). But, in the last centuries before Christ, when the prophets disappeared, their place was quickly and illegally occupied by the scribes. So from prophecy it passed to the rabbis’ prescriptions and provisions. They were passed on as "word and will of God."
Those who today reduce the relationship with the Lord to compliance with applicable laws and precepts, who replace the prophecy with the codes of laws, who preach a legalism that stifles spontaneity and takes away the joy of feeling always loved and welcomed by God, are perpetuating the spirituality of the Pharisees.
Verse 3 surprises because it seems to speak positively of the moral authority of the Pharisees who, in the rest of the gospel, are criticized in a systematic way: "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees!" recommends Jesus to his disciples (Mt 16:12). Here, then, one cannot urge people to assimilate their teaching. The verse is understood in the ironic sense, as if to say, "Follow, follow well as their empty and foolish chatter and you will soon realize how they distance you from God."
The second characteristic of the Pharisee is thus highlighted: inconsistency. Pharisee is anyone who says and does not do. He presents himself a devout person, speaks fine words on love, peace, respect of others, but cleverly avoids to get involved with these statements of principle.
Well articulated documents and solemn declarations are opportune but there is a need to be also vigilant so as not to fall into errors which are denounced in them. Requests for forgiveness for the crimes of the past are noble but one should also be aware that, from the same roots, today’s evil and reprehensible behaviors also draw sap and force.
The third characteristic of the Pharisees is the loading of unbearable burdens on the shoulders of the people (v. 4). They make a mistake with devastating consequences: they reduce the faith and love of God to the practice of religion. They preach fidelity to the precepts, and once observed—they say—one can safely feel okay and at peace with the Lord. But this is throwing a person in a distressing circle: laws, inevitable transgressions, cleansing rites, then new laws getting more minute and detailed, interpreted in a rigorous way with the result of taking the breath away, making life impossible, provoking anxiety instead of leading to inner peace. Thus the Jewish religion is born represented by empty stone jars. It is a wedding feast without wine, joyless because it lacks the loving, free and confident momentum towards God (Jn 2:1-11).
The scribes who have imposed these laws do not move even a finger to help the people, crushed by the weight of those requirements. "They do not even raise a finger to move them”; they do not consider the actual facts, not suggests less rigid interpretations, nor invite to seek the essential (v. 4). Jesus is moved in front of this situation and takes action to free the people from an unbearable load: "Come to me—he says—all you who work hard and who carry heavy burdens, and I will refresh you" (Mt 11:28-30). It is an invitation to take upon oneself a single, sweet and light yoke, that of love. Even Paul recommends: "Do not be in debt to anyone. Let this be the only debt of one to another: Love" (Rom 13:8).
Those who today try to impose on people "absurd and intolerable loads," who arbitrarily dictate rules, who are preoccupied with the minutiae of which Jesus never mentioned, who filter out the gnat and swallow the camel (Mt 23:24) behave as a Pharisee.
The fourth Pharisaical characteristic is exhibitionism (vv. 5-7), the desire to show off. This defect was deeply rooted, so Jesus denounces this often: "How can you believe—he one day says—you seek praise from one another instead of seeking the glory which comes from the only God" (Jn 5:44). He called hypocrites those who practice good deeds before people to be seen, those who pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners to be noted, those who fast with a melancholy air, so that everyone is aware that they are mortifying (Mt 6:1.5.16).
In today's passage other tricks with which the Pharisees attempt to gain recognition are described: the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues, the widened stripes and the fringes of vestments used during prayer.
Today the desire to attract attention of the people, the claim to having cameras trained on oneself have not disappeared. They pretend that the good done is emphasized and publicized and are annoyed when they are not. We can safely say that not all Christians do good works, hoping no one talks about it, doing everything possible to ensure "the left does not know what the right is doing" (Mt 6:3).
In the last part of today's Gospel (vv. 8-12) the image of the authentic Christian community is drawn, one in which every form of superiority and inequality has been eliminated. It is the opposite of society, both civil and religious, in which classes, discrimination, the distinctions between superiors and subjects are recognized and approved.
There are arguments that we consider important and to which Jesus gave little importance. However, on the issue of the first places, the honorary titles, the bows, the hand-kissing, the adulation he makes himself clear, radical and insistent. It becomes clear that this theme is in his heart, a central part of his message.
At the Last Supper, the disciples debated who among them should be accounted the greatest. He said: "The kings of the pagan nations and those hardhearted rulers claim the title ‘Gracious Lord’. But not so with you; let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant" (Lk 22:24-26).
It is the reversal of the criteria of this world. Jesus is so concerned that these criteria could emerge or that they are recovered in the Christian community that explicitly prohibits the use of even seemingly innocuous, the honorary titles. It recalls three, those used in his time for honored and respected persons: Rabbi (which means "my great…"), father (which means "model of life and behavior") and master (i.e. "spiritual guide").
It’s needless to devise reductive and conciliatory interpretations or resort to subtle disquisitions trying to justify them. Jesus has spoken unequivocally; his words are among the most clear and perhaps also among the most disregarded. Today he would not be less rigid on this point; he was too allergic to "Phariseeism" and would not tolerate that, among his disciples, even only the appearance of such behavior infiltrates.
In the Christian community the only blessed titles are: brother, sister, disciple, servant and those that indicate a ministry, a service. Others should be banned and should arouse discomfort not only in those who are addressed as such, but also in those who receive them. It is no coincidence that in the apostolic fathers (i.e. until the middle of the second century AD), the term "father" was reserved for God. It is significant that at the end of the fourth century AD, Jerome looked again: "The Lord warned not to call anyone father except God alone. I do not understand then who has authorized the superiors of monasteries to be called "Abba" or how we can allow someone to call us in this way."
The last words of today's Gospel reproduce at a glance all the displayed message: "Let the greatest among you be the servant of all. For whoever makes himself great shall be humbled, and who ever humbles himself shall be made great" (v. 11).