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 exploring the roots of a movement that
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
Sunday's first reading (Mal 1: 14-2:2, 8-10).
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
Readers of this column know that 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 the Gospel (Mt 23: 1-12). He laments the Jewish
"cleric/lay" gulf that has developed in His day and age, a gulf
that contradicts God's relationship with His 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. All their words are performed to be seen."
This God-forbidden division is most evident in
a practice with which we today are quite familiar: the honorific titles the
leaders demand and receive. Jesus turns this divisive system upside down,
stating His belief that "the greatest among you must be your
Pertinent to the exegesis of this passage is
Rev. John McKenzie's breakthrough book, "Authority in the
Church." In it, he popularized a concept that 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 (I Thes 2: 7-9,
13): "We were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God,
but our very selves as well."
The Gospel makes sense only 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?
Sunday's readings certainly challenge us to
convert to what both the ancient Israelites and the first Christians