It’s easy to feel defeated. Don’t let that turn into cynicism.
The Book of Malachi, from which this Sunday’s first reading comes, addresses Israel’s servant leaders with a severe tone. The prophet addressed words of challenge to all his listeners, and did not fear offending those who felt a sense of entitlement because of their office.
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. (Mt 23:8)
How might God’s word be trying to reach you with a challenge?
How has cynicism toward religion or faith affected your personal prayer?
In our society, is there a tone or attitude that you believe needs to be challenged?
A helpful way to understand the Book of Malachi is to see it as a stern “word of God” countering the cynical attitude of religious leaders who had become steeped in their skepticism. Indeed, the prophet’s very name denotes a close connection with God’s word. “Malachi” is the English spelling of the Hebrew name Mal’akhi, which means “my messenger.” The prophecy opens with a hopeful tone, “I love you, says that Lord” (Mal 1:2), and closes with the promise of a reconciled community, “He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers” (Mal 3:24). But between these hopeful verses, Malachi’s oracles can be harsh, as one finds in this Sunday’s first reading. Several rhetorical questions highlight God’s concerns, “Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break the faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?” (Mal 2:10).
As God’s ambassador, Malachi called on Israel to address two serious violations specific to its historical setting. The larger issue was a general loss of zeal for God’s covenant, which resulted in a breakdown of traditional practices and family life. The priests said nothing in response to this issue, according to Malachi. A second violation was the practice of sacrificing undesirable animals. The Torah commands that animals brought for sacrifice be healthy and unblemished, but priests allowed Israelites to ignore this law and keep the best for themselves. A priest’s main role as a “son of Levi” should have been to perform a worthy sacrifice in the Temple that brought honor to God and the community. “Your blessing I will curse.” says the Lord to these corrupt priests, “In fact, I have already cursed it, because you do not take it to heart” (Mal 2:2). Laxity in a matter of such importance to the faith reveals cynical leaders who do not believe that the ancient covenant applies to them.
May we cooperate with God’s tone of love.
Within his overall prophetic message, Malachi directs God’s ire squarely at Israel’s leaders. At stake is not merely a call to repentance and an act of conversion. Rather, what upsets God throughout Malachi’s prophecy is the attitude of the leadership, its “tone of failure,” its cynical approach to religious faith. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of a similar concern. “They [religious leaders] love places of honor at the banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’” (Mt 23:6-7). They do not lift a finger, however, to help carry the burden placed on their people (Mt 23:4). In this context, Jesus rejects the desire for recognition based on entitlement. The role of leadership, like all people of faith, is to cooperate with the word of God, especially when God’s word strikes at human complacency.
Our readings are reminiscent of a now famous saying by Oscar A. Romero, “A church that doesn't provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?” In a time like the present, it is too easy to look at the world around and feel defeated. This defeat can turn into cynicism if left unchecked. Anyone who picks up the paper today will find tragedy enough to question their faith or to think that God remains unmoved by the world’s burdens. Today’s readings expose how tempting it is to adopt an unhealthy and cynical tone towards these domestic and global burdens. God’s opening tone in the Book of Malachi is the antidote to this: “I love you.” If one allows those three words to sink in, they can unsettle the complacency that too easily settles into our societies and our individual hearts. May we cooperate with God’s tone of love. After all, “You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Mt 23:8).