George Bernard Shaw once observed, “One can only be converted to what one already believes.”
During my biblical prophecy courses, I remind my students that prophets never say anything new. One of the characteristics of a true prophet is his or her knack of taking people back to the beginnings of their faith, inviting them to cut through centuries of added religious practice and belief and explore the roots of a movement which somehow veered from its founder’s original plan. In these prophetic situations, “what one already believes” isn’t necessarily what people in the prophet’s audience believe, but what the first person or persons of faith believed.
Malachi invites us to do precisely this in our first reading.
Scholars believe the prophet’s name wasn’t Malachi. Malachi is a “pen name,” meaning “my messenger.” The New American Bible’s introduction to his book informs us that the prophet tried to conceal his identity “because of the sharp reproaches he was leveling against the priests and rulers of the people.” He’s afraid of retaliation.
The reason he’s afraid becomes clear when we hear the first verse of chapter 2. “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name . . . I will send a curse upon you . . .” For some reason, those who have determined our liturgical text have omitted the reason for Yahweh’s condemnation. Here it is: “For the lips of the priest are to keep knowledge, and instruction is to be sought from his mouth, because he is the messenger of Yahweh of hosts.”
Readers of this column know when the word “knowledge” is used in Scripture it almost always refers to an experience someone has. Biblically, to know something or someone is to experience someone or something. Malachi condemns the priests because their pompous acts of favoritism aren’t providing their people an experience of Yahweh in their midst.
Matthew’s Jesus prophetically proclaims the same message in our gospel pericope. He laments the Jewish “cleric/lay” gulf that has developed in his day and age, a gulf that contradicts God’s relationship with God’s people. The religious leaders “. . . preach, but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. Al their works are performed to be seen.” This God-forbidden division is most evident in a practice with which today are quite familiar: the honorific titles the leaders demand and receive.
Jesus turns this divisive system upside down, stating his belief, “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
Pertinent to the exegesis of this passage is Fr. John McKenzie’s break-through 60s book, Authority in the Church. In it, he popularized a concept scholars had been teaching for a long time: the only reason our evangelists describe Jesus condemning Jewish leaders is because those condemned traits are already beginning to surface in some of the leaders of the Christian communities for whom the gospels are written.
That’s why Paul deliberately reminds his Thessalonian community of his servant relationship with them. “We were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well . . .”
The gospel only makes sense when God’s equalizing, all-inclusive love is demonstrated by those who proclaim the gospel. Malachi, Jesus and Paul are convinced that God’s love has no strings of distinction attached. If they’re correct, the question for all God’s followers is simple: Why do we continue to develop and defend religious systems based on distinctions of person?
Today’s readings certainly challenge us to convert to what both the ancient Israelites and the first Christians believed.