6th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – Feb. 12, 2023

 

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – Feb. 12, 2023

Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Corinthians 2:6–10; Matthew 5:17–37

 

Theme: God Gives License to Sin to no one

 

We continue the Gospel reading of the “Sermon on the Mount”. On the Fourth Sunday, we read the first part of it called “Beatitudes”. Last Sunday was the second instruction in which Jesus addressed his disciples and each one of us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Today is the third teaching of the “Sermon on the Mount”. Jesus shows us a new way of observing the commandments. Sirach and Saint Paul in our first and second readings respectively, somehow call this new way of observing God’s commandments “Wisdom of God”. They advise us to choose “Wisdom” for us to live. In other words, we are called to choose Jesus’ Laws for us to inherit the kingdom of heaven that he came to establish.

Our first reading comes from Sirach’s book, one of the seven Deuterocanonical books. Note that this book is called by many names including Sirach, Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), the Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, Wisdom, Wisdom of Jesus, Book of Wisdom, Wisdom of Sirach, and Proverbs of Jesus of Sirach. Modern Catholic discourses use commonly the name “Sirach”. Ben Sira (“Son of Sirach”) is the author of this book.

In our first reading passage, the author teaches us that we are the authors of our salvation or condemnation. “Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sirach 15: 17). Here Sirach emphasizes human free will. If we want to be saved, then we choose to keep God’s commandments. Doing the opposite (not keeping the commandments and not fearing God) is choosing death. The author of this book makes it clear that there is no excuse for not keeping God’s commandments when he says, “No one does he command to act unjustly, to no one does he give license to sin.” (v. 20). Note that when Ben Sirach wrote this book, there was a belief that certain person’s importance of status excused them from following God’s instructions in the same way as everyone. So, there was a tendency to excuse the sins of high-ranking persons (kings, princes, bishops). Likewise, nowadays, we tend to think that people’s sickness, stress, poverty, and suffering excuse them from keeping God’s commandments. Our undergoing trials does not give us a license to break the moral law (to lash out in anger, to tell lies, to steal, and to make things easier on ourselves). When facing trials, sin gives a tendency to alleviate our difficulties, but in reality, it does not. I compare it to the childhood rash in which it is hard to resist scratching it. The doctor advises, “Do not scratch because if you do, you will just make it spread, and it will be worse”. Likewise, in our time of trials, the Church’s teaching advises us not to sin because sins worsen our situation. Sin is sin regardless if it is committed to easing suffering or not. Sin does not lead to happiness. Rather, it “spreads the rash”, which means, it damages our souls and breaks our relationships with God and with our fellow humans. So, neither “high-ranking persons” (the belief in the previous age) nor “great suffering people” (our belief today) are excused from doing what is right. “To none does he give license to sin”, says Sirach.

Sirach’s teaching is similar to the lessons that Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel. He starts the third part of his “Sermon on the Mount” by letting his listeners know that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5: 17). Note that the Torah (the books of law) and Nevi’im (Prophetic books) are two big and important parts along with the third part Ketuvim (other scriptures) that compose the Hebrew Bible. Here Jesus is saying that his mission is not to replace or to break what the books of Law and the Prophetic books say but to bring new and authentic interpretations. Note that religious authorities in Jesus’ time did not interpret the Law properly. They allowed lesser principles, such as ritual purity, but neglected larger principles such as mercy and justice. They themselves were not practicing what they were teaching. Also, they utilized complicated legal interpretations to avoid the ethical demands of the moral law. So, Jesus’ new interpretation directs our intention to the interior dispositions of the Law.   

In our pericope, Jesus demonstrates his new interpretation of the Law in four antithetical statements “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”. In each interpretation, he declares the former comprehension of the Law inadequate; he then brings a new and authentic interpretation that addresses an aspect of good relationships among people. For instance, in the first statement, for Jesus, “anger” is the interior disposition of “killing”. Moses’ Law forbids killing (Exodus 20: 13; Deuteronomy 5: 18). Jesus commands us to defuse “anger” which will prevent us from reaching the murderous stage. He gives us three concrete examples of how to resolve anger. First, we need to avoid insulting one another. (V. 22). Second, we cannot pretend to bring our liturgical offerings to God while we know that our relationships with someone are not good. Broken relationships increase anger and can lead to a murderous stage. He calls us to prioritize reconciliation even over offering God our gifts because the liturgical offering does not cover up our conflicts among us. We rather need to attempt face-to-face reconciliation first and then come to offer our gifts to God. (Vv. 23-24). Third, to avoid anger that can lead to killing, Jesus exhorts us to settle with our opponent quickly and so avoid letting conflicts worsen to the point of litigation in court. (Vv. 25-26). So, the new interpretation that Jesus brings to the Law, “You shall not kill” calls all Christians to imperatively defuse anger and attempt reconciliation. This is a good way to avoid reaching the murderous stage.

The second statement addresses adultery. “You have heard that 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.” (V. 27). As in the previous statement “anger” was the interior disposition of “killing”, so the lustful look is condemned here as it is the prelude to adultery. To express the seriousness of the sin of lust, Jesus uses the metaphor of tearing out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand. For Jesus, it is much better to lose one of the members than to commit the sin of lust and be thrown to the furnace of hell “Gehenna”. (Vv. 29-31).

In the third statement, our Lord interprets the Law about divorce, which is also a form of adultery. In Jewish custom, only the male could initiate divorce which is why here Matthew speaks only of males. Since in our societies, both males and females can initiate divorce, so what Matthew says about males also applies to females. Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 talks about the process of divorce. Jesus presents his teaching on divorce in Matthew 19: 1-12. He emphasizes the importance of the permanent nature of marriage. As a sacrament, marriage is for life. Except in the case of an unlawful marriage, a man remains married to his wife and vice versa although they divorce. For this reason, Jesus states that a man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery because this woman is still bound in marriage. Likewise, whoever marries a divorced woman (or a divorced man) commits adultery. While Mosaic Law dealt with the right thing to do once one has divorced his wife, Jesus’ new interpretation of this law invites us to reflect on the permanent nature of marriage and on the sin that divorce causes. When we understand that lawful marriage is for life, we will avoid divorce and then, there will not be adultery.

The fourth statement is about taking an oath. Here Jesus addresses honesty in relationships. (Vv. 33-37). The Moses’ Law stated, “You shall not swear falsely by my name, thus profaning the name of your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19: 12). Jesus’ interpretation focuses on the interior disposition of oaths which is a lack of transparency. For him, people take oaths because there is a lack of transparency among them. He then invites us to live with transparency in relationships among us to end the need to take oaths. There will be no need to swear using God’s name (Matthew as a Jew avoids the use of “God” which is why he employs here “heaven”, “earth”, and “Jerusalem” as euphemisms for God) to make people believe the veracity of our words if we live our Christian life with integrity. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’. Anything more is from the evil one. (V. 37).

Looking at all of Jesus’ four interpretations, no doubt we are saying that it is not easy to follow his teachings. Indeed, it is impossible unless we share his Spirit. People in the kingdom of heaven that Jesus came to establish are different from those who belong to the earthly kingdom. We Christians are “the other Christ”. We have Jesus’ Spirit in us. In today’s second reading, Saint Paul confirms it when he says that wisdom is a gift provided by the Spirit. The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. (1 Corinthians 2: 10). The Spirit of Jesus does not give us a license to sin or excuse us from the law but rather he enables us to follow Jesus’ Laws, not merely externally but also and especially in their internal disposition.

The mystery of the Eucharist that we celebrate in this Mass reconciles us with God and one another and unites us with God and our fellow humans. Let us pray that we live these divine and perfect Reconciliation and Communion in our families and societies and so end all evils among us. Amen.  

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD      

 

 

   

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