Feb 12, 2017: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

but-to-fulfill-it

1st Reading – Sirach 15:15-20

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.

The book of Sirach is a collection of proverbial teachings.  The author was Jesus, the son of Eleazar, of the family of Sirach. He was by profession a teacher of Wisdom in Jerusalem. The Wisdom tradition presumes a fundamental order in creation and life, and humans are free to decide to live in conformity with the way life unfolds (i.e., the path of wisdom) they can choose to disregard this order (the path of foolishness).

Today’s reading comes from the section of Sirach’s writing on free will and responsibility.

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.  Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.

The heart of the message is that each individual has the radical freedom to choose “life” by obeying the Law, or “death” by refusing to obey (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20).  By presenting a series of polar extremes (life/death, fire/water, good/evil), the implication is that the full range of options is included.  It is for us to decide which path we will take.

Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.

Our attention is next directed toward God, who we are informed is wise, powerful, and all-seeing.  When we are confronted with misfortune and human suffering, we often challenge these tenets, wondering how a wise and loving God could allow such adversity.  But a world without adversity, in which everything goes according to God’s will, would have no provisions for human choice.

The eyes of God are on those who fear him; he understands man’s every deed.

“Fear of the Lord” is an expression found throughout the Wisdom tradition that characterizes the fundamental attitude we should have toward God.  It is rooted in the recognition of divine grandeur and power.  Those who fear the Lord are the faithful.

No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.

The reading concludes with a disclaimer of sorts: although it is God’s desire that all will live in conformity to his plan, God has predestined no one to sin.  All have been given freedom of choice.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 2:6-10

Brothers and sisters:
We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
and which none of the rulers of this age knew;
for, if they had known it,
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But as it is written:
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,”
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

In last week’s reading, Paul used his preaching as an example of how man’s strength and wisdom are nothing compared to those of God.  Today we hear more about the true wisdom of God.

It’s worth noting that Paul develops his instruction on wisdom within the Jewish apocalyptic perspective.  That particular worldview maintained that the secrets of the future had been written down at the beginning of time and were hidden somewhere away from humankind, to be revealed when the fullness of time would at last dawn (apokalýptō).  Time was thus divided into “this age” of waiting and “the age to come,” when all things would be made known.  This line of thinking is reflected here in Paul’s references to a hidden wisdom, predetermined before the ages, and to the rulers of this age.

Brothers and sisters: We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.

Those who are mature are those who have entered into the dying and rising of Christ by accepting the wisdom of the gospel.  However, everything hinges on the essence of the mystery that has been revealed: the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

“The mature are those who preach the cross as wisdom because of the witness of Christ’s power at work. They know that actions speak louder than words. Their wisdom is not of this age but of the age to come, when the truth of God will be manifested to those who now deny it.” [The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles 1 Corinthians 2,6]

Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,

Since Christ, the Wisdom of God, is a mystery, men can know him only by revelation. The divine wisdom lies hidden in the folly and scandal of the cross.

which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,

“Paul is keen to point out that God always loved us, even from the very beginning, when we did not yet exist. For if he had not loved us, he would not have foreordained our riches. Look beyond the broken relationship which has come in between, and you will see that God’s love for us is more ancient still.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 7,5]

and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for, if they had known it,
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

“Lord of glory” is a divine title in 1 Enoch 63:2 and Psalm 44:8.  Here, it implies Christ’s messiahship and divinity.

Had the rulers of this world known that the glory of God resided in the man Jesus, they would not have crucified him.  But of course, they should have known, because Jesus did not keep this secret.

“But if Christ had not been put to death, death would not have died. The devil was overcome by his own trophy, for the devil rejoiced when, by seducing the first man, he cast him into death. By seducing the first man, he killed him (Genesis 3:1-19). By killing the last man, he lost the first from his snare.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 417), The Ascension 263]

But as it is written: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

Paul cites a verse from the prophet Isaiah (64:4) and then elaborates on it.  What inaugurates one into the new age is not some form of secret knowledge but love of God.  Furthermore, it is not a mystery rite that confers wisdom but the Spirit of God, the Spirit that knows even the depths of God.

Paul may have used Jewish apocalyptic thinking as the framework of his argument, but there is no doubt about the Christian interpretation he makes.

Gospel – Matthew 5:17-37

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall not commit adultery.’
But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said,
‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’
But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife — 
unless the marriage is unlawful — causes her to commit adultery,
and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’
But I say to you, do not swear at all;
not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the evil one.”

This week we continue with the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

“The law” and “the prophets” were the two major sections of Old Testament scripture.  Jesus’ teachings were so unprecedented that some seem to have accused him of having rejected that tradition.

Jesus insists that this accusation is false.  Further, his interpretations not only provide a new perspective, they offer the fuller meaning of the tradition.  The contrast, then, is not between Jesus and the law but between Jesus’ interpretation and that of the scribes and Pharisees (the interpreters of the law for the people of that day).

Amen, I say to you,

“Amen” is a solemn oath that the truth is being told.  The phrase “I say to you” serves to emphasize the authority with which he speaks.

until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter

Literally, “little horn.” Probably the small decorative mark added to many Hebrew consonants in the square script (i.e., a tittle).

will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.

Some people believed that God’s will is to be found in fidelity to the markings of the text, the actual letters of the Law.  They went so far as to insist that even a mistake made when copying a text was a violation.  Jesus uses this very point of view to argue that he is not abolishing anything — he respects even the smallest part of the smallest letter, and he teaches others to do the same.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ mention of the “least of these commandments” indicates his acceptance of the rabbinical distinction between “heavy” and “light” commandments.  The rabbis counted 613 distinct precepts in the Pentateuch and classified them along with their seriousness.

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their insistence on the minutiae of the Law at the expense of the righteousness that is at its heart.  Submission to the will of God goes beyond the external conformity to the Law.

In each of the six examples that follow (four today and two more in next week’s gospel), the statement of the Law is radically re-interpreted by Jesus.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.”

The commandment is quoted according to Exodus 20:15 and Deuteronomy 5:18. The added statement concerning judgment is not a quotation from the Old Testament, but judicial processes for murder are mentioned in Exodus (21:22) and Numbers (35:16-33).

But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment; 

While the Law bans murder, Jesus forbids anger and even insult.  The passion that impels one to commit murder is as guilty an action as murder itself.

and whoever says to brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

Raqa means “fool” or “idiot.” In Jewish society, one’s name carried heavy significance.  To publicly call another an insulting name was to shame that person and deprive them of an honored place in society.

Gehenna was the Jewish equivalent to hell.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Should men yield to anger, which is conceived as unavoidable, the sacred duty of reconciliation arises and that duty is urgent. Worship was to a Jew the most sacred action in which a man could engage, but reconciliation supersedes even the act of devotion. It is irrelevant to the duty of reconciliation who started the quarrel — social discord must be attended to before it gets out of hand.

Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

Matthew adds the metaphor of a courtroom case with an eschatological overtone that adds to the severity of the commandment.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”

The commandment is quoted according to Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Jesus does not attend to the penalties prescribed in the law for adultery, which was normally a capital crime (Deuteronomy 22:22). Neither does he mention illicit sexual relations that are not adulterous, although these are treated in the Law.

But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

As in the discussion of murder, Jesus advances beyond the traditionally supreme offense. The statement is brief: the gaze of lustful desire is as guilty as the adulterous action. The restatement of the Law is directed again at the root of the impulse.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

Jesus uses standard Near Eastern exaggeration to underscore the need for self-discipline: partial self-mutilation is better than total annihilation in Gehenna.

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.”

The statement of the Law is a very loose paraphrase and compendium of Deuteronomy 24:1, omitting the phrases that deal with the occasion of divorce. The religious leaders allowed divorce, sometimes for very trivial reasons.

But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife 

In Mark (10:11-12) and Luke (16:18), the clarity is undisputed — Jesus simply forbids divorce entirely. Mark’s formula reflects Roman law which allowed the wife to institute divorce; Matthew and Luke allude to the Jewish practice, in which only the husband could divorce.

— unless the marriage is unlawful — causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This exception clause (“lewd conduct is a separate case” in some translations) is a reference to some form of sexual sin and universally regarded as an expansion of the original form. Many interpreters and the Greek church understand it as permission of divorce for adultery — which would be plainly out of harmony with Mark and Luke.  Several Catholic scholars suggest it refers to an unlawful incestuous union.  Whatever the exception to the Law may be, it is clear that Jesus’ position on divorce is much more demanding than the common practice.

Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.”

The statement of the Law is not a direct quotation, but a paraphrase of such passages as Exodus 20:7, Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:3, and Deuteronomy 23:22.

But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.

In particular, Jesus forbids the type of evasion that substitutes something less sacred for the Divine Name.

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes, and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

Oaths were generally taken when the word of the person was not reliable.  Therefore, the necessity of an oath is a reflection of the evil condition of man, exhibiting both his tendency to lie, against which the oath is thought to protect, and his distrust of his fellow man. It is better to be known as an honest person who never lies so that no oath is ever needed.

Connections and Themes

True wisdom.  Life opens for us a series of choices, with which we chart our own path.  Circumstances can be thrust upon us, but we still choose how to deal with them.  All three readings today focus our attention on the nature of true wisdom, which prompts us to choose the right course of action and directs us in our interpretation of the Law. Sirach exhorts us to true wisdom, and in the gospel, Jesus gives us a demonstration of it.

Fulfillment of the Law.  For the Law to be a wise law, it must be grounded in the adaptability of wisdom, not in the inflexibility of legislation.  The truly wise realize that what is acceptable and life-enhancing in one situation may not be appropriate in another.  However, the values and aspiration out of which the Law emerged can still inspire us in our age, as long as we are faithful to both the values we have inherited and the world in which we live.  In the gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples (and us) to interpret the Law in view of new experiences and current circumstances.  When we engage in such reinterpretation, we must always ask ourselves: How will this enhance the lives of others?

Eye has not seen.  Paul teaches in today’s second reading that true wisdom comes to us through the Spirit, which will enrich us with insight into life in ways we never thought possible.  If we but follow the example of Jesus, our teacher, true wisdom will open for us a world we could never have imagined without it.  We will realize where and how we fit into the vast and interrelated ecosystems of the universe, and we will be overawed with the majesty and intricacy of its workings.  We will recognize that we are all bone of the same bone and flesh of the same flesh, and we will honor and care for the common humanity that binds us together.  We will understand that the value of anything is determined by its ability to enrich life, and we will cherish every manifestation of that life.  No longer will we view others as competitors, but as companions on the same journey.  No longer will we be tempted to hide behind the doors of our homes or our hearts — instead we will stand on the threshold of new life, facing the horizon of possibilities undreamed of.

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