God's followers always strive to do what God wants. They eagerly seek out God's commands, carefully study them and faithfully try to blend them into their lives. Though generous, such people often face a difficult problem: finding out exactly what God wants them to do.
As we hear in Sunday's first reading (Mal 1:14-2: 2, 8-10), the search for God's will is never easy. At times, the quest has even carried God's people beyond and in contradiction to the instruction of their religious leaders. From Malachi's oracle, we learn that his people had to go outside "the system" just to hear God's word.
Our unnamed prophet (called simply Malachi: "my messenger") emphatically condemns the temple priests first for not teaching and carrying out Yahweh's commands about sacrifice. (Strangely left out of the liturgical passage, the first verse of chapter 2 is "Now, O priests, this commandment is for you: if you do not listen, and if you do not lay it to heart....") Originally, Jewish priests did not offer sacrifice; they instructed the "laity" on how they were to offer sacrifice. That's why Yahweh lays a heavy curse on those priests who "have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by (their) instruction."
Then, shifting gears, Malachi addresses the problem of mixed marriages. Telling his people what Yahweh really expects of them, Malachi proclaims that all God's people are one, no matter who they are or when they receive God's call.
"Have we not all the one Father?" the prophet asks. "Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break faith with each other, violating the covenant of our ancestors?" God's followers must always be reminded of their original agreement with God and be encouraged to carry it out even in the face of "official obstacles."
As a prophet, Jesus frequently faced the same situation Malachi confronted (Mt 23: 1-12). "Do everything and observe everything (the scribes and Pharisees) tell you," Jesus advises His community in the Gospel. "But do not follow their example. Their words are bold but their deeds are few....All their works are performed to be seen."
Not so much by their teaching, but by their actions, the Jewish leaders are leading people astray.
Scholars of the Christian Scriptures always remind us that when any evangelist portrays Jesus attacking Jewish leaders, Jesus is much less interested in winning arguments with His fellow Jews than in warning future Christian leaders about pitfalls in their ministry. Here, leaders in the Christian community are never to say one thing and do another. They're faithfully to follow everything "the teacher, the father and the Messiah" command, and are to avoid any trappings, titles and practices which would imply they're in a superior position in the community.
"The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." Christian leaders are to imitate Jesus' total solidarity with His people.
From the second reading, we know Jesus' earliest followers strove to carry out His teaching and example of equality and service. In so doing, they believed they were doing much more than just fulfilling a recently deceased leader's wishes. Because of their belief in His resurrection, they were convinced Jesus was still alive, working among and through His followers.
That seems to be why Paul reminds his young community about his lifestyle while he was evangelizing them. "We were as gentle," he writes, "as any nursing mother fondling her little ones....We wanted to share with you not only God's tidings but our very lives....We worked day and night all the time we preached God's good tidings to you in order not to imposed on you in any way."
In other words, Paul was not just teaching about Jesus, he was actually acting in the person of Jesus. The Thessalonians experienced Jesus' love by experiencing Paul's love.
Many modern clerics have a lot in common with Malachi's clerics. Jesus condemns our titles, distinctive clothes, places of honor and marks of public respect. Such practices make it impossible for the community to experience Jesus through us. No wonder so may laity have returned to a scriptural faith. They have to go "outside the system" we've created in order to hear God's true word and discover what God really wants of them.