Scripture Studies, November 5, 2017

November 5, 2017 Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

This week, the readings call on us to reconsider the genuineness of our devotion to the things of God. Malachi, whose name means “messenger” condemns the priests of the Temple for the laxity of their commitment and care in their duties. The second reading speaks to us of the love that we are to have for those to whom we proclaim the message of Christ and the gratitude that should be in our hearts for all that God has done for us. It also a reminder that the message of Christ is the word of God not ours. The Gospel provides a look at one of the problems of the early church that has been with every generation before and since and is still with us. Rather than seeing it as a blanket condemnation of all Pharisees and scribes we should see this passage as a warning against hypocrisy and status-seeking in the early church of Matthew and in our own communities. All of us are, to some extent, “recovering Pharisees.”


First Reading: Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

1:14 [Cursed is the deceiver, who has in his flock a male,
but under his vow sacrifices to the LORD a gelding;]
For a great King am I, says the LORD of hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.

2:1 And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
2:2 And if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
[Yes, I have already cursed it,
because you do not lay it to heart.

2:3 Lo, I will deprive you of the shoulder
and I will strew dung in your faces,
The dung of your feasts,
and you will be carried off with it.

2:4 Then you will know that I sent you this commandment
because I have a covenant with Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.

2:5 My covenant with him was one of life and peace;
fear I put in him, and he feared me,
and stood in awe of my name.

2:6 True doctrine was in his mouth,
and no dishonesty was found upon his lips;
He walked with me in integrity and in uprightness,
and turned many away from evil.

2:7 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 the LORD of hosts.]

2:8 But you have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
You have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.

2:9 I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
Since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.

2:10 Have we not all the one Father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with each other,
violating the covenant of our fathers?

NOTES on First Reading:

* Brackets indicate portions of the verses that are not included in the reading [1:14a, 2:2c-7].

* 1:14 The prophet rebukes those who make vows to the Lord and then offer imperfect animals. The transgression is one of holding back one’s best from God who is the source of all that we have.

* 2:1-9 The priests are accused of not giving proper instruction to the people and of failing to keep the ways of God. Their behavior is compared to the ideal priestly ancestor (Levi) and, in verse 7, with the people’s expectations that the people have of a priest.

* 2:3 The New American Bible (NAB) translation includes a threat from God to deprive the priests of the shoulder. This refers to a part of a sacrificial animal which was allotted by the law (Deut 18:3) to the priests and God is saying that it will be withheld from them. This may be seen as a threat to end the Temple worship all together. Many translations (especially most Protestant versions) do not include this clause in the verse at all. Some other Catholic translations (New Jerusalem Bible) render it as “break your arm.” The Greek texts tend to read, “I will rebuke your descendants.”

* 2:10 Deut 7:1-4 , among many texts, forbade intermarriage of Israelites with foreigners. After the exile, this law was strictly enforced (See Ezra 9-10). Here, verse 10, foreign marriages are portrayed as a violation of the covenant which made the sacrifices offered by the offenders unacceptable to God (2:13).

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9,13

7b Rather, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. 8 With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us. 9 You recall, brothers, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. [10 You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers. 11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.]

13 And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

NOTES on Second Reading:

* 2:7 The term, apostles, probably refers to Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. The emphasis on gentleness and nursing of children is intended to convey the idea that the apostles did not try to coerce or force the Thessalonians in any way.

* 2:8 Their love for the Thessalonians was so great that they desired to share not only the Gospel but their very lives or selves with them.

* 2:9 Paul invites the reader to remember and consider the conduct of the apostles among them.

* 2:10-11 These verses, in brackets above, are not included in the reading this week.

* 2:13 This thanksgiving is really a restatement of the main ideas of 1:2-10.

Gospel Reading: Matthew 23:1-12

1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. 4 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. 5 All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. 6 They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, 7 greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ 8 As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. 10 Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

NOTES on Gospel:

* 23:1-39 The reading comes from the final section of the narrative part (19:1-23:39) of the fifth book of Matthew’s gospel (19:1-25:46) . This section includes a denunciation by Jesus of the scribes and the Pharisees. Although it depends to some extent on Mark and prior tradition, it is peculiar to Matthew. This chapter is a hinge which concludes the series of parables of judgment and controversies with the Jewish leaders which began in 21:23 and also introduces the last great discourse in Matthew (24:1-25:46).
While the deep opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees is well established in tradition and all the gospels, this speech reflects an opposition that goes beyond that of Jesus’ ministry and most likely is expressing the bitter conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and the church of Matthew at the time when the gospel was composed.
This speech ignores the positive qualities of Pharisaism and of its better representatives, as is often pointed out, but the circumstances that gave rise to the invective must be considered in dealing with this speech. It must be pointed out that this speech is not purely anti-Pharisaic. The evangelist intends to draw attention to many of the same faults in his church that he finds in its opponents and he warns his fellow Christians to carefully consider their own conduct and attitudes.

* 23:2-3 Whether or not a literal chair is intended or whether this is simply a metaphor for Mosaic teaching authority is uncertain. It is known that there was a seat so designated in synagogues of a later period than that of this gospel. The Matthean Jesus apparently did not intend to challenge the legitimacy of the authority held by the scribes or the Pharisees. He objected to their way of life and attitudes not to their authority. Their teaching did not bother Him but their practices did. Since the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel abrogates Mosaic law (Matthew 5:31-42), and often speaks out against the scribes and the Pharisees, this commandment to observe all things whatsoever they (the scribes and Pharisees) tell you cannot be taken as Matthew’s understanding of the proper standard of conduct for his church. Rather, the crowds and the disciples (Matthew 23:1) are exhorted not to follow the example of the Jewish leaders, whose deeds do not conform to their teaching (Matthew 23:3). This may reflect a period when the Matthean community was largely Jewish Christian and was still seeking to avoid a complete break with the synagogue. Matthew has incorporated this traditional material into the speech in accordance with his view of the course of salvation history, in which he portrays the time of Jesus’ ministry as marked by the fidelity to the law, although with significant hints to the new situation that would exist after his death and resurrection.

* 23:5 The disciples have already been warned against this same fault of acting to earn praise. Phylacteries were small boxes containing parchments on which verses of scripture were written and worn on the left forearm and the forehead during prayer as required by the Mosaic law (see Exodus 13:9,16; Deut 6:8; 11:18). Tassels were also worn by all pious Jews. The widening of phylacteries and the lengthening of tassels were done so that these evidences of piety would be more noticeable.

* 23:6-7 See also Mark 12:38-39. “Rabbi” literally means “my great one.” It was and still is a title of respect for Jewish religious teachers and leaders.

* 23:8-12 These five verses which warn against the use of various titles, are addressed to the disciples, not to the crowd. The term, Rabbi, had only recently (60-80 A.D.) come into widespread use as a technical term for an authorized Jewish teacher. Rejection of the title may have been part of Matthew’s feud with those who held the title. While only the title “Rabbi’ has been said to be used in addressing the scribes and Pharisees (23:7), the implication is that Father and “Master’ also were used for the same purpose.
Saul ben Batnith (80-120 A.D.) was the first Jewish sage known to bear the title “Abba” or “Father.” In spite of this prohibition, the title crept back into Christianity through the monastic movement where it was originally used for spiritual directors. Matthew presents his own preferences for titles in verse 34.

At the heart of the prohibition is not so much the titles but the lack of humility that Matthew associates with them as used by the scribes and Pharisees of his day. Jesus forbids not so much the use of the titles but the spirit of superiority and pride that is indicated by their acceptance. The mention of the issue in Matthew’s Gospel may indicate that this problem was present in Matthew’s church.</font

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