Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time: What Would Jesus Say?

This Sunday’s Gospel, the first half of Jesus’ diatribe against the scribes and the Pharisees, is a dangerous text. Through the past nineteen centurie

Nov 02, 2017

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)
Readings: Malachi 1:14b-2, 2b:8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

This Sunday’s Gospel, the first half of Jesus’ diatribe against the scribes and the Pharisees, is a dangerous text. Through the past nineteen centuries, many Christians, reading the passage carelessly and out of context, have taken these words as a condemnation of Jews and Judaism and have allowed the language to fuel anti-Semitic thoughts and actions. In our own day, Matthew scholars have blown the whistle on this interpretation of the passage. What we have in Matthew 23, they insist, is not Jesus excoriating Jews in general but Matthew refocusing and elaborating sayings of Jesus to critique the Jewish leadership of his own day (post-70 CE). Matthew’s purpose is to challenge the authorities of his own community to a more authentic leadership.

It is a vivid way of reminding us to practise what we preach and to use our authority for service of one another in the spirit of Jesus.

The scenario sketched by the recent scholarship goes like this. The author of the Gospel of Matthew is part of a Jewish Christian community. He is writing some time after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE). With the demise of that institution, the Sadducees have lost their power base, and the Pharisees and their scribes have begun to emerge as the leaders of post-Second-Temple Judaism. Called by their followers “rabbi” (“my lord”), most of these leaders, we can reasonably assume, were good and earnest men.

Now, Matthew, part of an emergent Jewish sect of “Jews for Jesus” soon to be called Christianoi, works on a new edition of the Gospel of Mark to help his own community live the faith in their circumstances. When he comes to the brief passage in Mark where Jesus denounces the scribes for their love of honors, abuse of widows, and pious hypocrisy (Mark 12:38-40), he sees an opportunity to aim this critique of leadership against the leaders of the larger Jewish community of his own day, his purpose being at least twofold: first, to shore up the authority of his subgroup, the Christian Jews of that town (Antioch? we can only guess); and second, to contrast the Christian style of community life with that of the larger community that surrounds them.

And so Matthew draws from Mark 12 and also from the tradition of Jesus’ sayings reflected in Luke 11:37-52 and presents what he is convinced is Jesus’ message to the situation of his own community. What we have then — in both Jesus’ setting and Matthew’s — is a case of Jews denouncing Jews. Jesus was acting in the tradition of Israelite prophets confronting corrupt leaders in their time and place — as in today’s first reading, where Malachi, a Levite, criticises the corruption of some Levitical priests; Matthew is countering fellow Jews regarding the best way to live the Law. The whole Gospel of Matthew says the way to be faithful to the Law of Moses is to do it according to the way of Jesus — especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 23, Matthew spells out the implications regarding the proper use of authority.

Like Malachi and Jesus, Matthew denounces hypocritical leaders among his fellow Jews — Christian and non-Christian. To make his point about what the service of leadership should look like among the Jesus people, he caricatures its opposite in his portrait of the leadership of the “others.”

In the spirit of Jesus’ teaching about living as a community of disciples (“The greatest among you must be your servant,” Mt 23:11), Matthew insists that they should eschew the titles claimed by the leadership of the dominant group around them; they should reserve the title “father” for God and use “Rabbi” and “Master” only for the Messiah.

While courtesy and good order may justify the use of titles in the Church today, nothing can ever justify reverting to a reading of this passage that has too often nurtured virulent anti-Semitism. The message is directed to us, not to others. It is a vivid way of reminding us to practice what we preach and to use our authority for service of one another in the spirit of Jesus. --By Prof Emeritus Fr Dennis Hamm SJ

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