Right is right, and wrong is wrong. Is the world really that black and white? While some might argue that it’s just that simple, our Catholic tradition recognizes that it’s not. The extremes of darkness and light are easy to see, but much of our everyday life lives operate somewhere in-between. The time we spend studying scripture and Church tradition are not so much to point out the obvious light and dark, but in learning how to, as I often say, “navigate the gray”. Or put another way, finding the right balance between the letter of the lawand the spirit of the law. On the surface, our Gospel this week takes a fairly strong, even harsh line with regard to the Law, but to view this passage literally is to miss the deeper meaning that Jesus is trying to teach…
Our first reading comes from the book of Sirach, named for the sage who lived around 200 BCE. Ben Sira had a love of the Law and often wrote of relationships between one another and with God. Originally written in Hebrew, it was translated into Greek around 132 BCE, and it is the Greek translation that survived, and consequently caused it to be left out of the Hebrew cannon, but is often used in the Roman Liturgy. This week’s passage is a poetic and poignant take on human free will. It is not God who creates sin, or pushes us toward sin… instead it is our own doing. It is also a good example of how those “bad” things are not directly God’s fault, but rather the result of the free will of his creation. Understanding this concept helps to setup the teaching presented in this week’s Gospel
Moving directly to our Gospel from Matthew, this week’s passage comes in both an edited version and a longer version. In most cases, the longer version of a Sunday reading provides helpful context that leads to greater clarity, but I would argue that the longer version of this week’s gospel tends to muddy the waters… but let’s unpack it anyway.
Our setting is exactly where we left off last week, with Jesus giving added instructions to his disciples. Continuing with our theme of free will (as setup by Sirach) Jesus asks us to use that free will to do what is right. To help us (and Matthew’s Jewish audience) he uses examples of the Law, and takes it one step further. This is another of Matthew’s rhetorical devices… using the Law (which his audience already knows), and taking it to the next level.
At the time of Jesus there were many followers of many other “messiahs” that felt that the old Law was antiquated and needed to be tossed out… but for Jesus, this was not the case. For Jesus (and the Church), not only was the old Law still valid, but he expected a much stronger commitment to it. Matthew isn’t saying so much that we should literally do what Jesus is saying here (because in the longer text, much of this sounds quite harsh), but instead we should be focusing on the depth of our commitment. We should remind ourselves that for Jesus, the new Law (love God and love your neighbor) is an extension of the old Law… a clarification that makes it easier to understand. We need to also recognize that from the mouth of Matthew all these points made by Jesus now open themselves up for debate in the greatest of Hebrew traditions. In writing these teachings down Matthew invites us to question what Jesus is saying in order to find the underlying truth in the same way the Talmud or the Midrash would do for Jewish Rabbis centuries later.
We close with a review of our second reading which is a continuation of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Here Paul reminds us that we don’t speak using the wisdom of the age (that is, contemporary Greek philosophy), but rather with the wisdom of God as revealed by the Spirit. Just as Jesus doesn’t want to toss away the old Law, Paul is telling us that we shouldn’t toss out the wisdom of previous ages.
When something doesn’t seem to be working, our human nature has a tendency to “toss the baby out with the bathwater.” We think that replacing it with something new will be the answer. Instead, our Christian tradition asks us to pause and look back. Look at where we came from, examine our current position, and do what is necessary to get back on course. This is how the Church works.
Making Disciples: Matthew’s Gospel and the Christian Community
How the Spirit Guides the Church: Two Views in Matthew and John
Infallibility and Church Authority: The Spirit’s Gift to the Whole Church