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31st Sunday in ordinary time: When religion is ‘fake’

Today’s readings : Malachi 1, 14 - 2, 2.8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2, 7-9.13; Matthew 23, 1-12.

There are times in the history of all peoples and cultures that are turning points and that mark radical shifts in the thinking and beliefs of entire peoples. Israel after the exile, and at the time of the prophet Malachi, experienced such a turning point. At the time of Jesus, a similar shift was under way in Judaism. Perhaps our times now are also at a crossroad where religion is concerned. It is in times like these that religion, any religion, stands or falls.

We are nearing the end of the liturgical year which, from beginning to end, focuses on the Lordship of Christ in our personal lives, in our religion and in the world around us. If faith and religion fail to make us focused on Jesus as the Lord of life, then the risk is to keep focusing on ourselves, making a sham of religion. That would be the end of faith and the death of the Spirit.

In today’s Scriptures, the prophet Malachi and Jesus both warn about this kind of death. St Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, reminds us also that it is a constant struggle to preserve the good news of the gospel once received as “a living power among you who believe it”.

The prophet Malachi, whose name means ‘messenger of God’, is apparently the last Old Testament prophet, and after him followed 400 years of silence from God’s side. That silence was only broken by John the Baptist, the messenger to make people prepare the way for the Lord in the New Testament.

The problem Malachi was addressing in his own time was that God was neglected and there was a sense of false security in the people. “You have strayed from the way,” warns Malachi, “and if you do not find it in your heart to glorify my name, I will send the curse on you.” Specifically, Malachi was addressing the priests who “were causing many to stumble by your teaching”.

God hates all that is not coming from the heart. When whatever we do in religion or in the name of religion no longer flows from the heart and leads to the heart, that becomes fake. And Malachi’s words are a tirade against a religion that brought no solace to the heart. Israel was in its post-exilic period and this state of affairs Malachi is addressing shows that Israel had learnt no lesson from past experience.

In the gospel, Jesus, like Malachi, finds a very similar situation. Addressing the issue of credibility of the religious institution, Jesus distinguishes between those who occupy the chair and what they teach. Once those who teach lose credibility, they also lose their moral authority over the people even if they believe they still retain their power. The ‘chair’ in itself is no longer guarantee of authority.

What Malachi and Jesus said can be very enlightening on the times we ourselves live in. We normally blame the decline of religion on the disbelief of modern generations or on a culture that looks godless. The biblical perspective should make us seriously rethink our judgement on reality as it has been and still is evolving.

It may be that religion has lost its hold on people’s lives because those who represent it and have the onus of handing it on are no longer credible. It may be that we have lost all moral authority and hence what we teach has lost its inner power. So the baby is thrown with the water! Our times, difficult as they may appear, badly need religion. But if religion is fake and not uplifting, then people may be authentic and soul-searching enough as to do away with it.

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