From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

“Who is ‘the Other’?”

Malachi 1:14a-2:2b, 8-10     1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13    Matthew  23:1-12

Today’s readings are trying to tell us how to hear the Message preached to us, not just as weekly homilies, but in everyday life, as truly God’s word, and be transformed by it.

In the second reading, Paul is writing his first letter to the Thessalonians, to whom he had recently successfully preached the Word. He says to them in verse 13, “when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” What, exactly, is this ‘Word’ that we receive, and that we carry to others?

I don’t think that what Paul means here is that the Thessalonians in some way took Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to be ‘gods’ ,nor that they believed the words spoken were not those of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, but the voice of God speaking through them.

I believe that what the Thessalonians recognized was that the words spoken by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy witnessed to the nature and activity of God, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it another way, they recognized the very presence of God in the act of proclamation. God is made known and becomes visible at the very point in time, the social circumstances, the physical space in which the speaker and the audience meet. In that moment, we become alert to God with us. The message that is proclaimed is a word that has its origin in the life-generating nature and activity of God.

This is also the way in which God becomes truly known — not in the abstract, but on the ground, in the midst of people’s lives.  The whole of our lives are lived in the presence of God, whatever our circumstances , because the power of God is at work in life-giving ways.

In the Gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees. They were religious leaders, whose authority lay in their ability to interpret Torah, or the Law of Moses. He acknowledges they “sit of the seat of Moses”, that is, have much reason to be respected,. But he insists, “…follow their words, what they say, not their deeds.” What they “say” when they cite the Scriptures is good, but Jesus and his followers do not accept their interpretation.

Clearly they are not telling people that Torah permits theft, murder, covetousness, or other such obviously immoral activities. Rather, the list here turns on issues of justice or status. They impose heavy burdens on others, requirements of such things as Sabbath observance and purity codes that become impossible for poor peasants or the urban poor to follow.

The detailed emphasis on following these laws was central to the teaching of the Pharisees, and not taking care to mitigate such things for people marginalized by their society added the burden of religious stigma to the burdens of poverty–disdain on top of suffering. ‘Rabbi’, ‘father’, and ‘teacher’ are specific titles to be shunned. They are all titles that carry both status and authority in the value system of the Empire. The vision and practice of an egalitarian community, with God and the Messiah as the only authorities to be accorded honor and obeisance, are hallmarks the early Christians wanted to share with the divine reign whose coming Jesus proclaimed.

Jesus affirmed that they should be servants; servant hood and humility were to characterize life in the Christian community. And Jesus made clear that one’s present action and attitudes about status and dominance would have consequences in God’s final judgment.

‘Father’ in particular was the term for the head of a household, whose total life-or-death authority mirrored the role of the emperor. To seek such roles and titles would be seen as desirable and in conformity with values about ‘pecking order’ in the Roman Empire, but those values should not prevail for Jesus’ followers.

We heirs of Jesus’ early followers adopted the very culturally more comfortable view that this text is opposed to. We have become the targets of what began as our own community’s rhetoric and trash-talk about those we consider ‘other’. A story from my own childhood too sadly reminds me of how it is ingrained, even from our earliest days.

My only excuse was that I was only 8 years old, a mill-town kid, and being the youngest of our neighborhood group of boys, I wanted to impress my friends. I did not know their name then, but I joined in the taunting of them when we were near their ramshackled house as we explored the nearby woods. After all, they were not one of us, they were not mill kids, and they were poor- as if mill kids could lay any claim to wealth. But today, after reflecting on these scriptures, for some reason, some unexpected reason, they are now very much with me; I now know their name, they were the ‘Other’.

On Sunday mornings they even dared to show up in church and so our taunting was silenced with only laughs and comments behind their back as they sat in Sunday School and in the pews during the service dressed in their tattered Sunday best. We watched them as we watched the pastor’s face to see if it would become as red and inflamed as the fire and brimstone sermon he always preached in his attempt to scare us into heaven.

Little did I know then, and unfortunately, neither the preacher or our Sunday School teachers let us know, that there in our midst, in our classroom and in the pews, the Gospel Truth was right before our eyes and all we could do was snicker, laugh, and talk behind their backs. I pray to God that now this memory that has been evoked by today’s reflections on these readings may NEVER leave me.

 

 

 

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