'You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on Earth, for you have one Father -- the one in heaven..' -- Mt 23:8-9

At first hearing, Sunday's readings seem directed at priests, not at the laity. Jesus levies an extensive criticism at the scribes and Pharisees because of their hypocrisy: They don't practice what they preach (Mt 23:1-12). In addition, Malachi says in the first reading (Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 2:8-10): "And now, o priests, this command is for you."

What, then, are we to draw from these readings?

Listening to Malachi and then to St. Paul in the second reading (1 Th 2:7b-9, 13), we have two models of priestly behavior presented to us. In Malachi, God is warning the priests not to show partiality in their instruction: In other words, they have an obligation to teach the Lord's ways, even when it is uncomfortable for them.

Malachi also says that priests must hold us (and themselves) accountable for our sacrifices. In the first line of the reading, we are told that we must make good on what we promise. We are no longer promising sheep and goats as sacrifices, but don't we make baptismal promises to reject satan and all his works? Don't we profess our belief in God? Don't we make marriage vows before God and His Church?

Priest's duty
It is the priest's job to remind us of these things, especially when we don't want to hear it. Priests who shy away from proclaiming the truth or who encourage a flaccid morality among the flock are threatened with a curse from God.

In the second reading, St. Paul paints a picture opposite to what we heard in Malachi. Paul and his companions did not hesitate to give the Gospel, the word of truth, and even their very selves to the Thessalonians. Paul reminds them that the Apostles worked so that the community would not be burdened with caring for them.

Most of us have encountered priests of both types: those who are self-serving and those who serve others tirelessly. The first group purifies our faith, in that we participate in the Holy Mass, the sacraments and parish life -- not because we like the priest, but because we have the gift of being baptized and belonging to the household of God as His sons and daughters.

We literally are given God's body and blood, and we share in the divine life of God. This is impossible without the priesthood.

Watch out
We also have the experience of parish priests who are available to meet our needs and are happy to do so. They are faithful to the sacraments and their priestly promises. These men show us a glimpse of the merciful heart of Jesus, especially in the sacrament of confession. We thank God for them, because they encourage and guide us along the way of faith.

In either case, we have an obligation to support our priests by prayer and encouragement, both those who are fervent and those who are lax. We must thank God for both.

Jesus, at the end of Sunday's Gospel, reminds us: "You have one Father, who is in heaven. You have one master, the Christ." This is why we, priests and laity, do what we do. How we do what we do is essential to our growth in holiness.

Lest we become preoccupied with self-aggrandizement or, worse, self-righteousness, Jesus reminds us that He is the model (the why and the how) both for the ordained priest and for the priesthood of the baptized: "He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."