Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12
If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01. That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem. Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes. We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen. Just think about it, though. If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight. We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.
It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today. Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people. They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us. They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important. Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency. Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering. He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers. It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it. The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems. For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.
In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need. It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out. No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives. More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes. Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places. Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye. Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.
For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading. He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father. Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important. They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building. Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country. All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully. They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.
When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community. That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart. Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ. That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed. It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.
The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure. But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.