[Excerpted from the November December 2017 issue of Emmanuel. Barbara Shanahan is an alumna of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. She has led the Buffalo, New York, Catholic Bible Studies Program since 1992.]
The readings for this week form a kind of sandwich: the text from Malachi and the Gospel point up the negative traits of religious leaders while Psalm 131 and the passage from 1 Thessalonians (the meat of the sandwich) demonstrate the attitude that enables one to exercise leadership in a humble, gentle manner that is expected of one who oversees God’s own people. Should we focus on criticism or encouragement?
Malachi reminds the priests of his day of the great privilege and dignity that is theirs in serving God in the temple. But they stand accused of cutting corners, slighting the sacrifices offered in worship, not being consistent in handing on the traditions of the Torah, and failing to set an example for the people by rendering such half-hearted service. The end result, keenly evident to the prophet, is that God is not revered, so the priestly ministry is ineffective and the people suffer for want of direction (see Mal 1:6-2:9).
In the Gospel, the leadership style of the Scribes and Pharisees is criticized by Jesus: “Do as they say, but do not follow their example.” Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). They are recognized as knowledgeable in matters of the law, but they are sorely lacking in compassion and concern for others, the “weightier things” according to Jesus’ way of thinking.