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OCTOBER 30, 2011: THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

We old-timers clearly remember the strong reaction when John McKenzie's book Authority in the Church hit the pews in the late 60s. Some in authority immediately labeled him a heretic, others among the faithful called him a prophet. I finished the book and simply asked, "How come I never noticed that before?"

The "that" was the great "John L's" methodical exegesis of biblical authority texts; an exegesis which demonstrated that the most frequent problem our sacred authors faced had almost nothing to do with people disobeying those in authority. On the contrary, in practically every passage, the problem they addressed revolved around how those in authority exercised authority.

Having been faith-formed in an era when the catechism, not Scripture was the teaching tool, I presumed anyone who questioned or challenged those in church authority were purchasing a one-way ticket to hell. It was a given that the power our religious leaders held over us was a direct gift from God. To challenge them was to challenge God. As members of the faithful, our job was to obey every edict unflinchingly. People of faith simply did not even complain, much less disobey,

When I, like many of you, asked my religion teachers what I should do if someone in authority told me to do something I believed was a sin, I was told, "Do it!" The reason: "Most probably you don't know enough about the intricacies of your faith to accurately label it as sinful. Because he's a priest or bishop he'll always know more about those things than you. Besides, on those extremely rare occasions in which it might be a sin, if you do it, he'll go to hell, not you." (No wonder Catholic clerical abuse is such a unique, diabolical phenomenon.)

As an excellent exegete, McKenzie time and time again demonstrated that when a sacred author addressed abuses in authority, he or she wasn't interested in bringing up past history or concerned with condemning "other religions." The problems which drove them to put stylus to the papyrus were rampant in the communities for which they were writing, otherwise they wouldn't have brought up the subject.

It's not hard for us to hear Malachi's condemnation of the Jewish priests of his day and age. We Christians presume if they'd exercised their ministry correctly, God wouldn't have sent Jesus to clean up the mess.

It's another thing to read Matthew's famous chapter 23 pericope. Though he has "his" Jesus tear into the "scribes and Pharisees," his readers knew he was criticizing their own leadership. Already by the mid-80s some Christian leaders had started to wear distinctive clothes, demand honorary titles, and presume they were generally better than those they served. Jesus puts it in clear terms: "Do not follow their example!"

Authority in the church is completely unique. "The greatest among you must be as your servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted." Nothing runs more counter to the way authority is exercised in other communities and institutions.

Paul, in the earliest Christian writing we possess - I Thessalonians - is forced to deal with the same problem. But instead of having recourse to Jesus, he uses himself as an example of good leadership. "We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children . . . 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."

Remembering Paul's I Corinthians 10 comment about the oneness of the Christian community being symbolized in the one loaf of "messy" Eucharistic bread, I can only surmise that even he realized that some styles of early church leadership were contributing to the mess.