Whenever the prophet Malachi pops up at Mass, I think of a dark comedy from 1992 called Death Becomes Her. The former is a bleak prophet with nothing good to say about his society in general and religious leaders in particular, while the latter is a movie starring Meryl Streep about the futility of trying to hold onto youth and beauty in a culture that has no use for the aging process.
So what’s the connection between Malachi and Meryl Streep? My brain makes this leap because of an exchange in the movie between characters incarnated by Streep and Isabella Rossellini. Streep plays a screen star who knows that remaining picture-perfect is the only way to sustain her career. Rossellini offers an elixir promising to keep her embalmed in youth, which Streep drains in a quick swallow.
Then Rossellini declaims ominously, “And now: a warning.” To which Streep, incredulous, responds, “Now a warning?” It’s a bit late for that. The potion’s been consumed.
Let the viewer take heed: Don’t drink the elixir before you hear the caveat.
Quaffing the potion of biblical prophecy is no less risky, to be honest. At least with Malachi, the exposure comes infrequently. A passage from this fellow shows up at most once a year in the Sunday lectionary; some years, it’s read on weekdays, once or twice tops. Which means Malachi’s words do not imperil us often, for which we might breathe freely.
Malachi is a prophet of brevity, with three chapters to his name. Which is likely not even his name: Malachi means “my messenger,” and while the “my” refers to God, the meaning of the “messenger” is up for grabs. It’s also uncertain when this so-called messenger wrote his message, the best guess being mid-fifth century BCE or so. After the disappointing return from Babylonian exile, for sure.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, in his spectacular two-volume work on prophecy, all but dismisses Malachi in two footnotes and a one-verse citation. Ursuline Sister Eileen Schuller, in her Post-Exilic Prophets (Michael Glazier), covers this unpopular prophet in one paragraph. But it’s a good paragraph, exploring Malachi’s concern with the “collapse of religious enthusiasm.” In that case, we should all be reading Malachi.
Schuller’s phrase is a useful summary of what we see around us a lot. It was easy to observe the collapse of zeal in the Sunday school sessions I used to teach. Once kids hit puberty, the shine comes off the ecclesial apple quite visibly. For some young people, it dulls in high school. For others, being out of the parental sightlines in college or with first independence puts the final nail in the coffin of organized religious practice.
As both Malachi and Meryl Streep make clear, by the time we hear the warning, it may already be too late to do much about it. Malachi’s oracle of profound disapproval betrays only a flicker of hope. The citizens of Jerusalem underwent a full generation in a foreign culture while in Babylon. The people Malachi’s addressing are not the same ones who were dragged off to exile a half century earlier. Few of the original exiles survived or were able-bodied enough to make the journey of a hundred days back to their homeland. Only some of their children, perhaps, or their grandchildren may have been persuaded by the allure of old stories to “return” to a place they’d never been and claim it as their home. Would you move back to the land of your forbears, no matter how fondly they speak of the “old country”?
And what sort of reality did the exiles return to, exactly? Not the Jerusalem of the famous Temple and proud walls of Zion people had heard about. The town they return to is a wreck, defenseless and overtaken by wilderness. By the time of Malachi, a rudimentary new Temple has been reassembled. However, Ezra tells us the new building’s so shabby it makes those few who remember Solomon’s Temple weep for what’s irretrievably lost.
Needless to say, the returnees have other things on their minds besides restoring the worship practices of old Jerusalem. That may be a priestly concern but not a high priority for the working class. They have to rebuild their city and economy; feed their families or perhaps start new ones. Some people intermarried with the locals, taking Samaritan wives or worse. Meanwhile, leaders such as Ezra the priest and Malachi the prophet are stamping their feet and shouting, “No, no, no!” This isn’t how the restored nation is supposed to go.
Malachi is writing later than Ezra’s generation, which we can surmise by his severe criticism of the priestly class. If the people are lax and indifferent in their religious practices, it’s because the priestly leadership has gone soft and corrupt. Malachi insists that God would prefer the doors of the Temple be locked altogether than to endure this half-hearted religious observance. Chapter 1 begins the charges against lame pieties; Chapter 2 doubles down on the excoriation of the priests in particular.
Whether you’re a cheerleader of our Catholic leadership today or more critical, you might still flinch at Malachi’s charge that an unrepentant priesthood will find its blessings turned to curses. Ancient peoples took blessings and curses with utmost seriousness. Words are powerful things, they understood. What we say and what we will comes to pass in tangible ways. If the power to bless sours due to the leadership’s flaccid example, such blessings must be fled like acid rain.
What hope does this prophet offer in such ruinous circumstances? A messenger is coming to clear the Lord’s path. Here Malachi—“my messenger”—might mean himself. Or he may foresee a John the Baptist-type figure or the return of the revered prophet Elijah, as indicated at the end of Chapter 3. A messenger is coming, but also a reckoning. Those who are cheaters—whether at the Temple, in their marriages, or in the marketplace—will face a rather bad time ahead.
The prophecy originally ended with the words “utter destruction.” Since Malachi is the last prophecy on the scroll of Minor Prophets, this brought the whole saga of Hebrew prophecy to a dismal conclusion. As Meryl Streep might say: And now, a warning? So the scroll’s editors chose to repeat Malachi’s next-to-last verse at the tail end of the text: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD.” There: That’s not so bad, is it? At least it leaves room for some folks to get their acts together and to stop defrauding God and one another.
Religious zeal is a volatile substance. It can easily go toxic, become destructive or deadly. We learned this from the crusades, the Inquisition, the violence in the Middle East today, as well as in every iteration of fundamentalist belief in our own country. But religious mediocrity is just as perilous, Malachi wants us to know. If we pedal through prayers and pious practices with no real engagement, we might better take Malachi’s advice and lock the church doors.
“The collapse of religious enthusiasm” that Malachi describes can only be cured at the root, in our leadership. How do we produce vibrant leaders? Should we send all church personnel on periodic guided, soul-searching retreats? If cost is the concern, consider how costly it is when blessings turn to ash—or worse.
For more reflections on scripture:
- What is St. Paul’s ‘holy kiss’?
- Scripture interpretations are never set in stone
- The shared vision of the prophets and Georgia O’Keeffe
Image: Painting of Malachi from The Bartolini Salimbeni Chapel, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons/Sailko