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6th Sunday of Ordinary Time

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 law and 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…

Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37 or Matthew 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37

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.  God, the wise creator, gives us a choice… water or fire, life or death.  How shall we choose?  The answer should be obvious when the author speaks of God’s immense wisdom (considered a prized possession in ancient Hebrew and later Greek society), but the choice remains ours.  Choosing to follow the Law, as emphasized in our Psalm (“Blessed are those who follow the law of the Lord”), shows us the wise path and sets us up for our 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 can also muddy the waters a bit… but let’s unpack it:

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.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  Continuing from where we left off last week, Paul tells us that we don’t speak using the “wisdom of the age” (that is, of his age whre contemporary Greek philosophy was all the rage), 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.  The Spirit reveals this to us.

Final Thoughts:
When something doesn’t seem to be working, our human nature has a tendency to “toss the baby out with the bathwater.”  That is, just throw out what we have now because it doesn’t seem to be working and replace it with something new.  Something different.  We think that replacing whatever it is with something new will be the answer.  It will make things right.

The trouble with this philosophy is that it’s short sighted and uninformed.  It tends to ignore the wisdom of the past in favor of the wisdom of the present (whether actual or only perceived).  The wisdom of the past is too quickly indicted and dismissed while the current wisdom is allowed to take hold without adequate vetting and examination.

Our readings teach us God’s wisdom gave us the Law (the Law of Moses, the Torah, the Ten Commandments).  God’s wisdom is immense and leads us on the path to love and redemption.  Jesus, when faced with rivals and alternative points of view, pauses, and forces us to re-examine what the Law was trying to teach us.  Per Jesus’ own words, he did not come to “abolish the Law,” but to “fulfill” it.  When the world around him is demanding change, Jesus doubles-down on what all the great prophets have been teaching us all along.  By loving God, and by loving one another, we gain wisdom and salvation.  Jesus’ point is that it’s not the Law that’s the problem… it’s how well we’re following it.

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