Lectionary commentary: sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A
A reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus, 15:15-20
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 119:1-2. 4-5. 17-18. 33-34. R/. v. 1
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2:6-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:17-37
What has come down to us as the Sermon of the Mount isa fairly long sermon. In the Greek written by St. Matthew it comprises of 106 sentences. It is, however, a very carefully structured piece of work. It begins with the nine Beatitudes (Blessed are …) that paint the portrait of the perfect followers of the Lord, the perfect imitators of Jesus, and the new face of God in the world. Those disciples sitting beside Jesus on the ground are hearing their identity, hearing who and what they are to become.The Beatitudes solemnly proclaim the identity of those who will make “church”, who will create a voice in the world. It will be a voice of proclamation, a community calling everyone to come to the mountain and sit upon the ground.
Let me outline again what they are to be if there are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They will be easily recognised as people,
who are poor in spirit who mourn who are meek who hunger and thirst for righteousness who are merciful who are pure of heart who are peacemakers who are persecuted who are reviled for standing on the side of God.
These are the identity markers that point to where God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s forgiveness—everything that distinguishes God’s righteousness from that of the world’s—is to be found.
The community of those who mirror God in our world is called the Church. Not that God does not raise righteous people throughout the world’s people! But the flagship of God’s righteousness is the people who, through the centuries, have sat with the crowds and the disciples on the mountain to listen. Having provided the blueprint, Jesus takes his listeners through the everyday bits-and-pieces of sanctity.
Those who are church must understand what Jesus is doing on that mountain. Moses learned from God on Mount Sinai that the crowd of ex-slaves at the foot of the mountain were to become the people of God:
I am the Lord your God.
I am the Lord your God.
runs through the Bible from Exodus to Deuteronomy and beyond. Leviticus provides a perfect summary of a new baptism, a new naming, a new identity:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel
and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy
… I am the Lord your God’.
Leviticus 19:1-4 (passim)
As Moses spoke to “all the congregation of Israel”, so Jesus speaks to the congregation of humanity. But his voice is something Jesus in Matthew came to call “my church” (Matthew 16:18 and 18:17). On Matthew’s biblical mountain, an imaginary Mount Sinai, Jesus begins to assemble a people and that people knitted together into little churches that will be created in his name and will grow into the Church. But the identity markers never change; they are as announced on the mountain. What is done there is the defining creative initiative. The very essence of what God wants in the world was done and said there. Everything else is mere footnote.
A reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus, 15:15-20
If you desire,
you will keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
Life and Death are in front of the people,
and whichever one chooses will be given to him.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;He is mighty in power and sees everything;
His eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows a person’s every deed.
He has not commanded anyone to be ungodly,
and he has not given anyone permission to sin.
The word of the Lord.
The book we know as Ecclesiasticus emerges from Jewish and Christian traditions with many names. It is named in Greek manuscripts rather formally as The Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach. In many editions of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation it is named Ecclesiasticus, “the church book”.
It is not regarded as belonging to the Bible by Jewish tradition and Protestant churches agree. Catholic and Orthodox traditions keep it in their Bible but with a certain delicacy: it belongs in the Apocrypha, a collection of ancient works that are deeply respected but, as some might say, not the full shilling. That does not mean that the fifty chapters of Ecclesiasticus do no include much practical wisdom.
The essence of practical wisdom is making wise choices. There is freedom, to be sure. But true freedom is exercised with responsibility. There are always choices, even life or death choices. The fact of many matters is that sin is always an option but the godly choice is to realise that that way is not the way of the Lord. For clarification, sit on the mountain.
Responsorial PsalmPsalm 119:1-2. 4-5. 17-18. 33-34. R/. v. 1
R/. Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,
who seek him with their whole heart. R/.
You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
Oh that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes. R/.
Deal bountifully with your servant,
that I may live and keep your word.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law. R/.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart. R/.
There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Some ancient Hebrew poets thought that it would be a whiz to write a poem where stanzas began with the sequence of the letters in the alphabet: a,b,c,d,e, … x,y,z. A religious poet, a composer of psalms, set out to present the world with such a prayer. He made it more difficult by giving eight lines to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet (so 22 x 8, a total of 176 lines). So Psalm 119 begins with eight lines, each starting with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. By the time you reach taw (t), the last letter of the alphabet, you may have lost the will to live.
But Psalm 119 is full of good things. Today’s Responsorial garners a few. Much is made of playing on the word “way”: those whose “way” is blameless are those who walk in the way of the Lord; the way of the Lord is torah, God’s teaching. My prayer is that “my ways” are resolute and conform to “His ways”. You can see how that works out in today’s selection from Psalm 119.
Praying the longest psalm in the Bible is quite an enriching Lenten exercise, though not much of a penance, more a delight. And though it begins with great determination to walk in the way of the Lord, the last lines are,
I have wandered like a lost sheep.
Seek your servant,
for I have not forgotten your commandments.
Maybe Lenten, after all.
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2:6-10
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
The word of the Lord.
St. Paul was well aware of the problems besetting the little communities of Christians scattered in and around the bustling city of Corinth. A very busy import-export city with goods and people flowing west to Rome and east to Asia Minor, Egypt and God knows where. He had to bind together slave and free, rich and poor, literate and (mostly) illiterate, and cosmopolitan and transient migrants. He had to deal with a veneer of sophisticated Greek philosophical vocabulary and thought that centred on human concerns, human ambitions, and human achievement. Amidst all this what Paul sought to do was establish the wisdom of the gospel of God. He sought to move the goalposts away from a human self-centred wisdom to a wisdom coming in a gift from God wrapped in the person of Jesus Christ.
The wisdom Paul proclaims is “not of this age”. It’s not what you find on the streets. It is not wisdom as plied by “the rulers of this age”, the policy makers, or the chattering classes. It is nothing less that “a secret and hidden wisdom of God”. It is a wisdom not given in past ages but, in God’s good time, it has now been fully revealed to humanity. It is a wisdom that confers glory on all who have ears to hear.
If there is one word in the Bible difficult, if not impossible, to define, it is the word “glory”. This is so even if everyone knows what it means—until you ask the question. At Christmas we meet a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying (not singing) Glory to God in the highest (Luke 2:13-14). We have seen Simeon on Candlemas Day taking the child in his arms and thanking God for revealing to him and to the whole world “the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). And, of course, we conclude many of our prayer with a Glory be. In Advent and Lent we omit our great hymn of glory but on Easter Day we ring joyous bells when it is restored to us. To be sure we give glory to God. But Paul insists that what God has decreed from ages past has come and is “for our glory”. He adds “that “none of the rulers of this age understood this”. If they had understood what “glory” in God’s vocabulary means “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”, an accusation made clearly in today’s reading Again what does the word “glory” mean?
Unfortunately next week our Lectionary reading from St. Paul jumps forward to chapter 3 of the letter and we are left with an enigma:
For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
I Corinthians 2:17
The word “glory” occurs 167 times in the New Testament. How important it is in Paul may be judged by one fact: it occurs 29 times in the letter we are listening to today.
The story of the word “glory” in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian New Testament begins with the Hebrew word kāvôd. This word means the weight, or heaviness of something. It shifts into a metaphor for human wealth, for “heavy pockets, as it were. Then it begins to refer to the splendour of being wealthy, of the distinction that wealth and power give in the estimation of an admiring or jealous public. But such glory does not last forever:
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
Even prosperous nations may pass away:
For thus the Lord said to me, “Within a year, according to the years of a hired worker, all the glory of Kedar will come to an end.
If, however, God is thanked as the source of one’s glory, then all will be well:
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices.
Thus—and this is very significant—human glory is seen as a gift of God, as God sharing his “wealth” with a grateful and appreciative humanity. If one’s heart is fixed upon God, then one’s glory is a cause for rejoicing and earnest thanksgiving:
My heart is firm, O God!
I will sing and make melody with my glory [kāvôd]!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great above the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Whatever glory enriches the life that utters this prayer, it is glory that comes from God and may be given another name: steadfast love.
The Hebrew word kāvôd was, in the fullness of time, translated into the Greek word δόξη, doxē, [dox-ay]. We retain the Greek word in the word “doxology”, a hymn or prayer prising or glorifying God.. WIf we begin with Hebrew kāvôd, weightiness, in relation to God, God’s glory is the weight of God’s love, of God’s mercy, of God’s compassion, of God’s forgiveness. All that is of the essence of God, the very being of God that is evident in all that comes from the creative heart and mind of God. Of his fullness we have all received, as we learn from St. John’s Gospel (John 1:16).
Thus when St. Paul speaks of “our glory”, he means that we are weighted down with the very weight of God. The Spirit of God “searches everything, even the depths of God”. There is, as it were, no nook or cranny of God that is not probed by the Spirit and whatever is found, even in the remotest corner of God’s being, through the Spirit, is “freely given us by God”. And Paul confesses that he is the one bidden to take this wisdom to the quarrelling Christians of Corinth. No wonder, down the page a bit, he calls them “people of the flesh”, “infants in Christ”, and, worst of all, “merely human”. It is their ignorance that astonishes the great apostle:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
I Corinthians 3:16-17
In other words, the very Presence of God, the fullness of God, that filled the Temple, is now present in the Temple that is each warring community in Corinth. We live in the thought, the mind, the heart of God, and we are embraced by the very presence of God. All that weight, all that wealth, the very richness of God, is nested where “two or three is gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20). That’s the glory, the glory of God and of people informed by that glory, of which we (and Handel) sing.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 5:17-37
The Law's Command
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Fidelity and its Lack
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. ’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. ’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit
adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn. ’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Jesus continues to flesh out the kind of life lived by those whose portrait is so vividly painted in the Beatitudes. The characteristics of people who are blessed, the people who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, emerge as the sermon discloses who are “called great in the kingdom of heaven”.
Out of the past, out of all that God established through the Torah and the Prophets, Jesus emerges into the brightness of a glorious day. If we discard the past, then we will never recognise Jesus the Jew nor learn to live in the new day.
The Law’s Command
God called Israel into being, gave it a name, and determined to be its God in solemn covenant. This people was enfolded in God’s Torah, the way of life that promised shalom, well-bing and prosperity in the land. This people were to be holy as its God is holy and they were to become a light to the nations.
Matthew was aware that God’s dealings with Israel were not the dealings of a here-today-gone-tomorrow God. Jesus, he knew, did not come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets, to abolish the status of Israel or to draw something new under the sun out of a divine hat. The will of God, expressed on Mount Sinai to Moses and through Moses to the people, cannot be cast aside. Not an iota, not jot nor tittle of God’s past is to be left aside as if a new future was to be created ex nihilo, out of nothing.
The Gentiles in Antioch who came to faith in Jesus must realise that they are entering a story of which many chapters have been told and they must come to know, to understand, and to live the inheritance of Israel.
Above all, both Jew and Gentile must live the righteousness of God, that is, to do on earth as it is done in heaven. Jesus sets out a true understanding of the traditional teaching of the Torah and not popular but mistaken notions.
What follows in the sermon after the confirmation of the Torah and the Prophets is six contrasts that illustrate the true meaning of God’s Torah (verses 21 to 48). Each of the six contrasts is framed in the same way:
You have heard that it was said/But I say to you …
These six comparisons represent the heart of the teaching of Jesus and expound the ethical demands of the kingdom of heaven.What God wills to happen on earth is voiced by Jesus in contrast to what people have mistakenly understood. What is obvious is the radical nature of God’s demands.
The first challenge to ancient wisdom tackles one of what are popularly called the Ten Commandments. Jesus quotes the ancient words, given twice in our Bibles:
You shall not murder.
Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17
God’s judgement is swift on those who commit murder (see Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-17, each insisting on the death penalty). With supreme authority (But I say to you …) Jesus insists on a more radical analysis: anger, the birthplace of murder, is outlawed. There is no exception. A considerable number of ancient manuscripts insert “without reason” at this point, thus toning down the insistence of Jesus. Christians are always very good at justifying killing.
To call a brother Raka is to endanger life for it opens the way for anger and strife. Here we have one of very few instances in our Gospels where we have an Aramaic word. English translations usually offer “Fool” or “You fool! But there is more to ancient name-calling in the Bible than mere impoliteness:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1
The Aramaic “Raka” implies a rejection of God, a rejection that leads to “abominable deeds” and an absence of goodness of any kind. To call someone a “renegade” (possibly the Greek means “a heretic”) or a turncoat of some kind is a deep insult. What Jesus is doing is going to the heart of the command to do no murder. He is determined to emphasise that any step on the way to murder, no matter how remote or distant from the event, has no place in the community of those who are devoted to the values of the kingdom of heaven.
Fidelity and its Lack
The same principle applies to the matter of adultery. The ancient commandment is clear:
You shall not commit adultery.
Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:18
Lust is not adultery but it is an indication of what is in the mind and heart. No doubt there is a exemplary hyperbole in the injunction to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand. But being a disciple living the demands of the kingdom of heaven calls for unrelenting vigilance.
Gehenna, mentioned seven times in Matthew’s Gospel, is a name derived from Aramaic meaning “the valley of Hinnom”, a place just outside the walls of Jerusalem to be avoided for it had been a place of child sacrifice. It became the place where the refuse of the city was burned and its perpetual smouldering made it a symbol of eternal punishment.
The question of divorce is introduced following on the matter of adultery. The introductory phrase ”And it was said …” is more abrupt, less formal than the introductions to the other matters in the six questions raised in this part of the Sermon. Yet the Hebrew Bible has a prominent teaching on the matter:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house …
There was/is much debate on whether “has found some indecency in her” refers to adultery or some serious infringement of the marriage or whether a wholly frivolous misdemeanour suffices to trigger divorce proceedings. However, the basic fact was/is that the Hebrew Bible permits a man (not a woman) to divorce and to remarry.
Matthew’s text is clear. The words of Jesus expressly forbids a man to divorce his wife for this forces her into a union that would itself be adulterous, since she is lawfully married to her husband. Anyone who marries a woman so discarded commits adultery for the woman is not unmarried.
This would be reasonably clear except for two things. First Matthew’s text has an exception clause: except on the grounds of sexual morality. The second difficulty is that Matthew has a second discussion on the matter of divorce:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
This is a more detailed discussion and its significance is enhanced by the fact that it is a discussion with Pharisees who have approached Jesus to test him.
Both discussions in Matthew have an exception to the law that outlaws divorce. The difficulty is to translate the two phrases that propose an exception. The phrase “except for sexual immorality” is no more than a guess that that is what Matthew’s Greek text means. Is divorce outlawed unless in the case of adultery? Or is divorce and remarriage (that is always understood in ancient debates) permissible for some lesser sexual immorality? Does porneia, the Greek word in question, cover, as it were, a multitude of sins? The basic questions are these: Does Matthew’s Gospel outlaw divorce absolutely? Or are there human failures that permit divorce and remarriage?
There is no agreement among scholars on the matter of translation. Nor is there a Catholic/Protestant divide in the modern scholarly debate on the matter. But it is interesting that four fairly recent German Catholic commentaries on the Gospel according to Matthew from international scholars translate the text to mean “except in the case of adultery” - and thus propose that Matthew does not teach that Jesus commanded an absolute ban on divorce.
The question of divorce that comes to the fore again in Matthew 19:1-12 when Pharisees seek to test Jesus in a matter that was of great concern and controversy in the time of Jesus and later as a issue among early Christians. That discussion will shed some light on the matter but it will not, as we shall see, set aside the “except for” clause.
Jesus turns his attention to the business of swearing with what looks like a quotation from the Hebrew Bible but is not. It is rather a summary of what the Hebrew Bible teaches here and there. The prophet Zechariah, advising upright behaviour when God restores the people from exile, mentions the virtues of plain speaking:
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.
Swearing can sometimes be used to hide rather than reveal true intentions. Swearing by all that is holy does not always come from an honest heart or a pure intention. A simple “Yes” or “No” is more likely to have a ring of truth.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.