Just two weeks ago, Jesus called out the Pharisees as hypocrites for testing him. Last week, the Pharisees tried again. Today, Jesus preaches against the Pharisees. “They do not practice what they teach,” Jesus says, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.” Jesus is not pulling his punches. Why is Jesus reacting so strongly to the scribes and the Pharisees?
Jesus condemns them because their observance of the law is merely external. They preach the law, but they do not live it. They may say, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself,” 1 but they love luxury and accolades more than God and neighbor. They have made idols of their phylacteries and their fringes. They have exalted themselves, and they shall be humbled if they do not repent of their ways—either in this life or the next.
The readings here are pointed at the priestly portion of society in Israel. Each reading speaks of the necessity for the priests to care for the children of God, and strongly condemns those who tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. The message to the priests and scribes and Pharisees in these readings is clear, and it is strong: practice what you preach, or you will answer to God.
But what does this have to do with everyone else? Why does the church give us all this reading?
The purpose of the priesthood is to sanctify. In the Church, there are two fundamental types of priesthood. There is the ministerial priesthood, conferred through ordination. Its goal is to sanctify the children of God. The priest exists to serve and sanctify the baptized. There is another type of priesthood in the church, on in which each of the baptized share: the common priesthood of the faithful. Through this common priesthood, the baptized are called to sanctify the entire world.
When we understand that all of God’s baptized children are a part of the common priesthood of the faithful, the readings take on a new meaning. We must all follow the way of God. We must care for all our brothers and sisters in this world. We must humble ourselves.
Malachi warns us that if we do not do this, our blessing will become a curse. Our baptism gives us a great blessing and great graces. Baptism transforms us into children of God, and God marks us as his beloved. With this blessing, with this covenant, however, we are given a missionary responsibility. God calls us to sanctify and convert the world: to teach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world through our words and actions. If we fail to do this, the we will not only lose what we had before our baptism, but we will also lose all the gifts we were given in baptism.
This duty is serious. It is a challenge to each of us. We must allow God to take control of our lives, to reflect him in everything we do. We must all humble ourselves and become servants of our neighbor. Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived, and in today’s Gospel, he tells us that the greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; Psalm 131:1, 2, 3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12