This Sunday’s first reading from the prophet Malachi contains a sharp rebuke of priests for causing “many to falter by [their] instruction.” If we read the context, we discover that the problem was with the whole people, not only with the priests, and that the crisis Israel faced bears many similarities to that which the Church is facing today.
In my post last week, “What Our Lord is Saying to American Catholics,” I recalled Haggai’s prophecy that Israel’s economic problems resulted from the people pursuing their own affairs and not putting God first by seeking him and building the temple.
Sixty years after Haggai prophesied, after God’s people repented and built the temple, the nation was again in crisis and not experiencing God’s blessing. Malachi says that both priests and people were under a curse (Mal 2:2; 3:9) because of their conduct. The Lord was not pleased with their sacrifices, was not honoring the priests’ blessings, and the nation was experiencing economic problems again—locusts destroying their crops, barren vines in their fields (3:11).
What had Israel done to deserve this, and what does it have to say to American Catholics today, if anything? In this post I’ll comment on Malachi 1:1-2:9. Next week I’ll comment on the rest.
After reaffirming his love for Israel and the fact that God chose them above other nations (1:2-5), the LORD sharply reproves the people and especially the priests for despising him, for failing to show proper reverence and honor toward God (1:6). This was expressed in their worship. Instead of offering their best animals in sacrifice, they were offering the “leftovers”—their blind, lame and sick livestock (1:7-8).
This conduct is the opposite of the “greatest commandment” that Jesus’ identifies in last Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew 22, to “love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
How about most American Catholics? Do we give God the best of our time, talent, and treasure, or do we despise him, giving the leftovers, a few dollars and sixty minutes squeezed out of our weekend?
Not infrequently, like the Israelites we say, “What a burden!” as we bring our meager sacrifices (1:13). Where do our spare time, money, and thoughts go? Is there anything about our behavior that would lead someone watching to conclude that we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind?
The LORD singles out the priests with extra severity, perhaps because their failures affect the whole people.
God recalls his special covenant of “life and peace” with the priestly descendants of Levi, their former reverence and awe in God’s presence (2:5), and their former conduct that corresponded to their priestly calling:
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.
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. (Matl 2:6-7)
However, now they have failed to do their job by not teaching the people, by teaching them wrongly, or by showing partiality in their judgments. The priests are suffering the consequences:
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.
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. (2:8-9)
This has happened in the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe. Never in recent memory have Catholics had such a low opinion of the clergy, primarily because of the priest sexual abuse crisis.
Some bishops have shown “partiality” by transferring priest-abusers or by making public the accusations of individuals against priests that lack supporting evidence (1 Tim 5:19, such accusations deserve investigation, but not dissemination). Many bishops have failed to reprove and discipline Catholic politicians who publically support abortion. By their silence these bishops tacitly teach that abortion is tolerable, even if their words condemn it. The American bishops as a whole have failed in some ways to keep the activities of their own national organization consistent with Church teaching.
Thank God, reforms are underway, and there are many bishops and many priests who fulfill their teaching and governing responsibilities faithfully. However, we need to understand the problem well in order to make an adequate response.
As to priests, many do not teach “true doctrine.” Although a small percentage actively undermine the teaching of the Church, the more common problem is silence about wrongdoing, especially the forms that are most prevalent. The LORD pinpoints a similar problem in ancient Israel through Ezekiel: “they do not distinguish between the sacred and the profane, nor teach the difference between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek 22:26).
Jesus took a different approach:
“But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” (Mark 7:20-22)
How many homilies have you heard that address the evil thoughts, adultery, greed, envy or the other evils that proceed from the heart and defile a person? How many that discuss cohabitation, abortion, pornography, living beyond one’s means, or abusing drugs and alcohol?
St. Paul, like Jesus, identifies unacceptable conduct, and the implications for those who persist in it:
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
If St. Paul’s words are true, and they are, Catholics need to be warned. To fail to do so is pastoral malpractice, like a doctor who does not inform a patient regarding a lifestyle that threaten the patient’s life.
Of course, the primary focus of preaching and teaching is not sin but Jesus Christ and the good news of salvation. But the gospel can hardly be preached effectively if people never hear about the conduct God rejects and the grave consequences of not repenting. When they do, they are in position to appreciate the gospel of grace!
While the first part of Malachi focuses on the failures of the priests, the rest focuses on the sins of the people.
The intent of the LORD’s message through Malachi is not to condemn, but to call his people to repentance: “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal 3:7). Let’s humble ourselves and pray like Daniel (Dan 9) and Ezra (Ezra 9; Neh 9) for the Church, for her priests and bishops, and for ourselves.