Sirach 15:15 – 20
We don’t often hear from the Book of Sirach. It is always the first reading on the Feast of the Holy Family but, other than that, we only hear from this book two or three times over the course of the year. It is one of the very last books of the Old Testament. If you look in your Bible’s Table of Contents, you will find it listed under The Wisdom Books. It is, in fact, an excellent example of Wisdom literature, filled with moral teachings. It was written between 195 and 180BC by a man who identifies himself as Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach (cf. 50:27). We can be certain about the dates of its writing because it was written after the death of Simon II; he died around 195BC (cf. 50:1 – 21) and before the 38th year of the reign of King Euergetes, which was 180BC (cf. Forward). It is also known as “Ecclesiasticus” due to its extensive use in liturgical celebrations in the early church. Because it was written so late, it is not part of the Hebrew Scriptures, although it was well received among the Jews as is evidenced by its use in both Jewish worship and literature. Since it is not in the Hebrew canon, it is not in the Protestant canon either. It was written to defend the cultural and religious heritage of Judaism against Hellenism that was becoming so popular in Palestine and the Diaspora. The author accomplishes this by blending the wisdom of revealed and empirical wisdom.
To better understand this Sunday’s reading, let’s begin with 15:11; note the footnote that tells us that the author of this book links freedom of the will with human responsibility. God, who sees everything, is neither the cause nor the occasion of sin. We have the power to choose our behavior and we are responsible for both the good and the evil we do. If humanity is divided between the wise and the worthless (cf. 15:1, 7), it is not God’s work but that of humanity. This affirmation of free will is rarely made so forthrightly in the rest of the Old Testament.
15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments, they will save you; [if you trust in God, you too shall live;] [loyalty is doing the will of God]
[if you trust in God, you too shall live;] [loyalty is doing the will of God]: notice the different ending to this verse that many of you find in your Bibles. We will hear the first but not the second part of the passage on Sunday. Again, we see an example of slightly different versions of the early written texts.
16 Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand.
fire and water: this is a very stark contrast; fire destroys, water gives life. We see this spelled out so clearly in the next verse.
17 Before everyone are life and death, whichever they choose will be given them.
life and death: this should remind you immediately of Moses’ instruction at his final address (cf. Dt. 30: 15 -20).
18 Immense is the wisdom of the LORD; mighty in power, he sees all things.
19 The eyes of God behold his works, and he understands every human deed.
he sees all things. The eyes of God behold his works: This is a very poetic way of saying that God is omniscient.
20 He never commands anyone to sin, nor shows leniency toward deceivers.
This is one of the clearest declarations we read in all of the Old Testament about God as being the source of good, not of evil. And, as is usually the case, this reading prepares us for the gospel passage.
Matthew 5:17 – 37
As you know, this is Year A, the first year in the three-year liturgical cycle of Sunday readings, when the Gospel of Matthew is heard most often. Ordinary Time, which began this year on 9 January, following the Solemnity of the Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, has featured the Gospel of Matthew beginning on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time on 22 January when we heard that Jesus called his first followers – Peter and Andrew and James and John – and began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Over the last two Sundays, we have heard passages from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes which are seen as our Lord’s version of the Ten Commandments. This Sunday, we will hear a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount; we pick up just where we left off last week and we will continue next week where we leave off this Sunday.
This Sunday’s section begins with a very important opening declaration about the Law. As you see in the footnotes, this statement of Jesus’ position concerning the Mosaic law is composed of traditional material from Matthew’s sermon documentation (see note on Mt 5:1–7:29), other Q material (cf. Mt 18; Lk 16:17), and the evangelist’s own editorial touches. To fulfill the law appears at first to mean a literal enforcement of the law in the least detail: until heaven and earth pass away nothing of the law will pass (Mt 5:18). Yet the “passing away” of heaven and earth is not necessarily the end of the world understood, as in much apocalyptic literature, as the dissolution of the existing universe. The “turning of the ages” comes with the apocalyptic event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and those to whom this gospel is addressed are living in the new and final age, prophesied by Isaiah as the time of “new heavens and a new earth” (Is 65:17; 66:22). Meanwhile, during Jesus’ ministry when the kingdom is already breaking in, his mission remains within the framework of the law, though with significant anticipation of the age to come, as the following antitheses (Mt 5:21–48) show.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
18 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.
not the smallest letter: the law remains important, but it is the way we show our love for God and neighbor, not a guarantor of God’s favor.
19 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.
20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors: Now, there follow six examples of the conduct demanded of the Christian disciple. Notice in your footnote that each deals with a commandment of the law, introduced by “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors” or an equivalent formula, followed by Jesus’ teaching in respect to that commandment, But I say to you; thus their designation as “antitheses.” Pay attention: three of them accept the Mosaic law but extend or deepen it (Mt 5:21–22; 27–28; 43–44) but three reject it as a standard of conduct for the disciples (Mt 5:31–32; 33–37; 38–39).
‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment’: let’s read Ex: 20:13 and 21:12; notice that Jesus softens the punishment demanded in Exodus.
22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Raqa: as you will read in your footnotes, this is a very strong word, meaning “imbecile” or “blockhead.”
Judgment… Sanhedrin… Gehenna: as you will read in your footnotes, the ascending order of punishment ponts ot a higher degree of seriousness in each of the offenses. Being angry will lead to judgment, perhaps by a local council, using abusive language toward someone will lead to trial before the Sanhedrin – the highest judicial body of Judaism – and calling someone a fool will lead you to Gehenna. “Gehenna” refers to the Hinnon Valley, just southwest of the city of Jerusalem. It was here where children were sacrificed by fire during the idolatrous worship in the time of the reign of Solomon. In the New Testament, it speaks of a place of punishment: hell.
23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you,
24 leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
25 Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. 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.
26 Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
28 But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 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.
30 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.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’
32 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.
33 “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.’
34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
37 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.
In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, these teachings lead to a blessed life, one in harmony with others and a reflection of God’s love. As we hear our Lord teach elsewhere, this is the way to heaven; not observance of the Law cf. Mt. 22:34 – 40).
1 Corinthians 2:6 – 10
We continue to hear from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, once again picking up this Sunday where we left off last Sunday. The passage this coming Sunday admonishes us to recognize that God’s teachings require a wisdom that is greater than the wisdom of this world.
6 Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
7 Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
8 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.
9 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,”
10 this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.
Paul’s message is important for us to hear as we learn what God requires of us – as we heard in today’s Gospel – and we face the reality that God truly has given us free choice; we need to choose wisely. As we continue Ordinary Time – that is, Time ordered by God for our salvation, we do well to recognize that the actions of our everyday lives lead us to either heaven or hell. I’m working to get to heaven!