The LORD’s Word to Priests and People through the Prophet Malachi

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.

9 Comments

Filed under Peter Williamson, Uncategorized

9 responses to “The LORD’s Word to Priests and People through the Prophet Malachi

  1. I like the article but I disagree on some points. My main issue is the list of sins, is that all Catholic doctrine is, a list of sins? I believe that God works in our hearts to accuse us whether or not a priest is preaching or not. If the heart is hardened then it cannot hear the word, just like in the Gospels. The Catholic Church is more than a list of sins to be condemned, it is the heart of forgiveness in the world. Yes, sin abounds, but as St. Paul said, grace does abound all the more. I do not believe that God holds nations guilty! God holds individuals guilty. Is it really the job of our bishops to be political? I do not think so, I think that being political puts us further back into the feudal church, for when our bishops are so busy being political they have no time to shepherd the flocks they were called to tend. One last thing, he who is without sin cast the first stone. It is easy to point the finger and find the scapegoats, but what about your/mine/our sins? They are the root of all other things. Convert the heart.

    • David Sandburg

      Stephen:

      I agree with most of what you say, including that our bishops should not be political. But there are moral issues on the national political scene that they MUST speak about. Abortion for one, same sex unions (sometimes referred to as same sex “marriage”). It’s the bishops’ obligation to lead on moral issues and condemn immoral laws and behavior.

  2. Michael Demers

    Dear Stephen,
    1. No, the Catholic doctrine is not just a list of sins.
    2. Yes, God does hold nations guilty.
    3. There is a difference between politics and teaching morality.
    4. Read Malachi again and ponder on it.

  3. Peter S. Williamson

    Thank you both for your comments! I wondered after I posted if what I said might leave the wrong impression and Stephen’s comment highlights the issue.
    Although it is essential that priests speak directly about sin, especially the kinds of sin that are most common, that is obviously not their main job in preaching and teaching the faith.
    What percentage of Jesus’ and Paul’s recorded teaching (or that of other NT authors) identifies sinful actions and attitudes and warns of the consequences? I haven’t done a calculation (if someone does, please tell me), but I would estimate about ten to fifteen percent. Most of Paul’s teaching is focused positively, on explaining the gospel and on living the new life in Christ and in the Spirit. This apostolic example is what I would commend to priests and pastoral ministers today.
    Last night my wife and I entertained for dinner three of my former students, priests ordained about a year and a half. I read them my post and one of them wisely commented: “It’s not just sins that priests need to identify, but also the ways in which the contemporary worldview differs from the worldview of the word of God. In order to understand what’s wrong with gay marriage, Catholics need to understand more than the fact that homosexual acts are immoral.”
    In fact they need to understand God’s intentions for sexual complementarity and marriage as well as the truth that our sexual desires (often disorderly) do not define us or determine our happiness, what love really is, and many other things as well!
    In my post I was addressing the problem of priests being silent about these temptations their people face, usually out of fear. (I could have mentioned contraception as well.) The evil of some sins is obvious; the evil in others needs patient and skillful explanation.
    The tone in preaching and teaching about sin is important. It cannot be condescending, moralistic, or merely condemning. Rather it should be sober, but kind, understanding human weakness, and offering the hope of divine power to enable us to God’s will. The good news is that we really can life a new life by the power of the indwelling Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:11!).
    As to Stephen’s other point, I absolutely agree that our bishops ought not to reprove and discipline pro-abortion Catholic politicians as a means to influencing public policy. Rather their primary responsibility as shepherds is to solemnly warn erring sheep and to make clear to the whole flock what is unacceptable conduct for a Catholic. Direct rebuke and disciplinary action is needed to show the Church is serious about this evil. (In family life children know the difference between wrongs for which they will be scolded and wrongs for which they will be disciplined.) The only reason the discipline should be public is because the Catholic politician’s advocacy of abortion has been public.

    • Suzannah M

      We are so far removed, as a people living two thousand years after Christ, from the realities of life in ancient Israel and yet we still react with the same kind of knee-jerk reaction to the call to live a Godly life as those whom Malachi and Jesus challenged in their day. We live in the same fallen world, filled with the same kinds of devilish temptations to sin as any other time in the history of humanity. While Jesus was fully God, He also was a prophet, because as He said, He spoke the words His Father in heaven gave hIm to say. The Church also proclaims Jesus to be the High Priest, the one whom all Catholic priests are called to imitate. Therefore, if we spend time listening to Jesus in the Gospels we hear Him speak words challenging us to accept that living in the Kingdom of God means availing ourselves to both God’s law and His mercy. Today’s Catholic priests must, as the priests in ancient Israel were warned, lead the people to first see the difference between living as God’s chosen people and living as the world dictates, by first being convicted of their sin. Then, and only then, can God’s great mercy to forgive and rehabilitate us be fruitful unto our living Godly lives within the Kingdom of God. In other words, we live by both Law and Gospel. Jesus is not just a big Teddy Bear that makes us feel all better by simply taking Him into our arms and heart. God’s ways are not our ways and when Jesus reminded the priests, scribes and Pharisees of that Truth it made them so angry that they sought to kill Him. Can we accept the words of Jesus which are both Law and Gospel and encourage our priests to be like Christ for us?

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  5. Anne

    I am confused sometimes by priests. For example currently New Advent has an article by James Martin S.J. about Jesus on a plane. It references the apostle Nathaniel commenting favorably on a scene in the morally offensive film Bridesmaids and Jesus commenting. The movie has graphic sex, profanity etc. and is rated O by the USCCB. Why would a priest reference it in a humorous breezy way. Why would New Advent have the article on their site which is dedicated to the Blessed Mother? I would not want my high school son to read Father Martin’s article.

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