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NOVEMBER 2, 2008: THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

No one reflects better on the Christian call to be another Christ than Paul of Tarsus. He not only carries on Jesus' ministry, but he also spends a lot of time surfacing the implications of the risen Jesus among us. The last verse from today's I Thessalonian's pericope is classic. "We 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 this earliest of Christian writings, Paul reminds his community that once God's word takes root, their lives will never be the same. The outward sign that God's word is implanted and growing in them is found in how their behavior patterns have changed. What they once did, they no longer do; what they never dreamt of doing, they now focus on every day. God's word has turned their daily "to do list" upside down.

Paul brings up his own behavior among them. "Though we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children . . . . We were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well . . . working night and day in order not to burden any of you." God's word completely changed the way Paul related to others. His actions became the pattern of how members of his community are to relate to one another.

Of course, it would be easier for us to copy Paul's behavior if that "human word" weren't also part of our daily lives. It doesn't disappear just because God's word comes on the scene.

Throughout salvation history God's people have been forced to contrast the human word with God's word, especially when the human word becomes the guiding principle in the lives of those who claim they're preaching God's word.

More than 400 years before Jesus' birth, Malachi had to deal with temple priests who had fallen into this human trap. As Aelred Cody states in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, people have a right to expect a priest to be someone "who communicates the mind and will of God." Yet the priests have forgotten (or refuse) to teach people that "we all have one Father." In their own lives they're notorious for "breaking faith with one another." God's word seems to play no role in their ministry.

Matthew's community has surfaced similar problems. Though over the centuries we've used chapter 23 to hammer Jews, scholars remind us that if some leaders in the gospel community weren't guilty of the behavior Jesus condemns, these verses never would have been included in Matthew's gospel.

"Their words are bold," Jesus warns, "but their deeds are few." They do the very thing Christian leaders are never to do: separate themselves from those they serve. Listen carefully to the outward signs which demonstrate their non-Christian behavior.

They create moral burdens for the people from which they exempt themselves. Their words and actions are pious show. They never make Jesus' teachings and example the guiding force in exercising their ministry. They even dress different from others in the community - wider phylacteries and broader tassels. They expect to be treated different - places of honor at banquets and front synagogue seats. It wouldn't cross their mind to "fly coach." They even demand titles which no one else has. Jesus believes it's more than an honor just to be brother or sister to those they serve. In the way they live their daily lives, God's word has been completely smothered by the human word.

Thank goodness nothing like this has ever happened to any of us leaders in the Roman Catholic church.