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The Liturgy of the Word address us with rough words. Both Malachi and Jesus are using violent words. But if we look at what is at stake we see that the language is proportionate to what is happening: the distortion of life of faith. When it comes to our Christian life, we should have the same kind of attitude that Jesus has and allow nothing to compromise it.
I know the setting quite well. At the time of Malachi, they rebuilt the new temple on the vestiges of the old one destroyed by war. Yet, people instead of offering the first-fruits to the Temple’s sacrifice were bring leftovers. The priests felt “yucky” about the whole thing and began to change into mere “clerks” of the cult and focused extensively solely on the rules and regulations, especially those that impacted the liturgy. Yet, for God that is not a good reason to change focus – things, even if they are “sacred things” (like sacrifices) cannot replace God. Today, we still struggle with the same situations: churches are seen by some only as “sacramental service stations” where people go to get their sacraments (and most of the time, asking to do them according to what they think should be done) and focusing only on the externals. We also have groups of people who only focus on the “legalistic” aspects of our christian life – wanting bells, and altar railings, etc. and then they continue to leave God out there in heaven, having no impact on their lives. (Thankfully, there is a new springtime in the church that is creating a whole new people who really want to be committed to live the Gospel and live as children on the Church!!!)
I don’t blame the Pharisees and the scribes: they were committed to live their Adventure of Faith fully and, as a group, they made the free choice to renew the religious life of the time. I feel close to them because I made that commitment, too and as part of my ministry I, too, feel the desire to renew people’s relationships with God. But as a disciple of Jesus, I need to take these words at heart, too otherwise I may risk to commit the same mistakes they made. I guess, they were afraid of losing their roles and presenting themselves to the people as “those who know, those who are orthodox.” Unable to be humble and acknowledge their shortcomings and sin, instead of presenting to God their empty hands and ask for mercy they reduced faithfulness to God to fulfillment and mere observance of the practices of the law. If religion, then, means this – only doing religious things, then of course they were better than others, and I understand why they had a superiority complex: they kept more rules and laws than the rest of the people. But Jesus unmasks them and brings to the fore the real issue: at the center of our religious life there is God, who is a person… not a “thing.”
The Pharisaic spirit has been forced out: to lie to one self and to deceive others. This is what drives Jesus mad. This “new form” of religion only appears to have God at the center but really has human pride as sole motivator. It’s all about what I can do for God. Yikes! Jesus tells us that nothing is more foreign and false in Christianity than Legalism (“just keep the rules and all will be fine!”). Legalism ignores the heart completely.
Before I point the finger at them, I better watch out and look into my heart to see if I am not doing the same. Jesus is shedding light to a Hidden Deception that lives in our hearts and in our Church today as well. Why is it that one of the most popular accusations against Christians is to say something and do another, at times exactly the opposite? Hypocrisy is the temptation “par excellence” of all those who make a choice to trod the path of Christian life.
As a priest, I cannot ignore the words the Jesus is speaking: Do I preach without practicing? Do I help people to live out their Christian life or do I just tell them “the rules”? Do I perform deeds only to be seen, to be honored, to be respected publicly? Do I use titles, religious or “scholarly” in order to impose my opinions on others?
The Good News is that God’s grace is effective in spite of my sins and shortcomings. Jesus said that the people are not to ignore what the Pharisees and Scribes teach: their words are valid. It’s just not imitate their behavior, and therefore remain focused on God. This, instead of depressing me, allows me to live my life in freedom and actually inspires me to commit myself to be servant of all.
I have to remain totally grounded in the Word. It is like a mirror that Jesus holds up to my face so that I can see myself in a more truthful way and, in His light, escape the Hidden Deception of Hypocrisy. And when I celebrate sacraments, I don’t want to say “Here are the rules and my job is done,” I want to say, like Paul, “I am ready to give my life for you.”