By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Sirach 15:15-20; Response: Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37
The first reading is from an Old Testament document known by two names. First name: Ecclesiasticus, which means “a book to be read in the assembly.” Second name: Sirach or Ben Sirach, or the full title: The Book of Wisdom of Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira (Sirach). This title tells us that his name was Jesus and that his father and grandfather were named Sira and Eleazar, respectively (See Sirach 50:29). Sirach lived in the late third and early second centuries B.C. He was a native of Jerusalem, traveled widely and had a remarkable grasp of the Scriptures (Old Testament). In this book or scroll, he brought together his experiences and knowledge, and wrote them down in Hebrew, “in order that those studiously inclined . . . might make all the more progress in living according to the Law.” Thus the words of his grandson, who translated his grandfather’s work into Greek sometime between 135-117 B.C. The book belongs to a class of Old Testament books called Wisdom Literature. Some others: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon. In these books, one encounters a knowledge of God, nature, skills of scholars and laborers, and rules of conduct to help young people cope with life.
The context from which our first reading is taken is a discourse on human freedom. The section begins with a brief inquiry into temptation. Apparently, there was a saying, “The Lord was responsible for my sinning.” Sirach rejects that saying: “The Lord hates all that is foul. He made us in the beginning and left us free to make our own choices.” This is the entrance to our reading, which begins, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments and they will save you.” He compares that choice to choosing to stretch one’s hand either into fire or water. We assume Sirach prefers the water, which he compares to a choice between life and death, or good and evil. Then comes a warning or motivation for choosing good over evil: God is very powerful, sees everything and understands everyone’s deeds. He returns to the original theme of defending God from responsibility for sin. “He commands no one to act unjustly, nor does he give anyone license to sin.” The New Testament Letter of James agrees, “God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Book of Psalms — 176 verses. The verses selected to respond to our first reading pick up, from Sirach, the theme of doing the commandments of the Torah, the Law of the Lord. “Blessed are they . . . who walk in the Law (commandments) of the Lord.” Every selected verse and the people’s response express that theme. The context of the second reading from 1 Corinthians is Paul’s defense of his mission. Last Sunday, he defended the simplicity of his presentation as a form of wisdom — preaching a crucified Christ. Today, he refers to the content of his preaching as God’s wisdom — a mysterious, hidden wisdom eternally planned — the crucifixion of “the Lord of glory.” From a human point of view, we have to agree. No human planning could possibly have conceived a plan of salvation that reduced God to total helplessness. Even though the helplessness was temporary, it was brutally cruel. As Thomas Aquinas explained in the hymn “Adoro te,” “one drop of blood would have been sufficient to wipe out every sin.”
The Gospel continues selections from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain. Matthew’s whole gospel is a compromise document between older types of Christians converting from Judaism and newer types coming in from among the Gentiles. Matthew, therefore, depicts Jesus speaking to both sides. Today, we would call them conservatives and progressives. First, to the conservatives: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah (law) and the prophets. I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” He is so insistent on this point that he adds, “Not the smallest letter (of the Hebrew alphabet) or even the smallest past of a letter will pass from the Law, until it is fulfilled.”
We can imagine the conservatives nodding in agreement, while the progressives express negativity. The concern of the progressives would have been, “Does he mean we have to submit to circumcision and the kosher food laws?” Matthew will handle some matters later in the gospel; but for now, he throws them a pacifier: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” At least they are not excluded from it. Next, Matthew makes the conservative feel uneasy: “Unless your way of doing the Law (righteousness) surpasses the way of the scribes,” (most of whom were Pharisees), “you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes were the lawyers who interpreted the Torah. They found ways of getting around the laws of the Torah (See Matthew 15:3-9).
Matthew next begins a series of theses versus antitheses. In the series, he presents ancient law or tradition and depicts Jesus going beyond mere words to the heart of each thesis. The thesis: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill . . .,’ but I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother, or bullies him with various names . . ., will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.”
We are not told whether all sides in Matthew’s congregation were happy with this tough love. Genhenna was a corruption of the name “Valley of Hinnom,” which was outside Jerusalem. This was the site in ancient times where children were sacrificed to the fake god Moloch. Later, it was the location for blast furnaces and the burning of the bodies of plague victims, thus becoming a symbol of eternal hellfire. There are six theses followed by their antitheses. Today’s gospel includes three more. The last two will be treated in next Sunday’s gospel. Today’s second thesis concerns adultery. Its antithesis excludes all acts and intentions that can lead to adultery. The third thesis treats divorce and remarriage. The fourth deals with oaths and their elimination from Christian life. Among Christians, a simple “Yes” or “No” should be sufficient without swearing to something. At least that is the ideal!