Sunday, February 16, 2014

16 February 2014 - Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Shared Homily Starter

1st Reading:    Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 15:15-20
2nd Reading:   1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Gospel:           Matthew 5:17-37

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the source of the First Reading.  It is from Sirach, is also called the Wisdom of Sirach and also known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus.  This is one of the biblical books in the Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic Bibles that is not found in Protestant Bibles.

In today’s first reading, we hear that keeping the commandments and acting faithfully are choices we make.  When Jesus says in today’s Gospel that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, Jesus is talking about teaching us the right attitude and disposition in how we keep the commandments and act faithfully.  Jesus is not calling us to a new law but to a new way of life by teaching that the commandments must be perceived at a deeper level.

Jesus is offering us the choice to either be like the scribes and Pharisees, who look for loopholes in the commandments or who issue judgments on others without consideration of their circumstances or keep the commandments to keep up appearances.  The scribes and Pharisees, who keep God’s laws without regard for God’s love, justice and mercy, are not acting out of righteousness but unfaithfulness.  They see evil where it does not exist.  Yet they minimize their own wicked intentions. 
On the other hand, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is presenting us with a second choice:  to go beyond the letter of the law and commandments to their spirit and intent.   For example, not only those who commit murder have broken the sixth commandment but those who harbour anger, ill will, or utter abusive words towards another are guilty of breaking this commandment.  Jesus isn’t saying here that we can’t get angry with one another but that we’re not to be physically or verbally or in any way abusive.  We are not to let our anger fester.  Remember, one way of looking at sin is to be out of right relationship with God, our neighbour or ourselves.  So we are to re-establish right relationships before we can offer our gifts at the altar. 

Similarly, in Jesus’ ministry, women were not seen as evil seductresses to be avoided, but welcomed as sisters.  So Jesus is not saying that it is a sin for a man to look at a woman but that it is wrong to look at women with lustful intentions and desires.  The new relationship with women among Jesus’ followers required that his followers look at each other with love rather than lust; and, that men view women with respect as equals rather than as objects of their desires.

Jesus next prohibition on divorce must be looked at in context. In Palestinian Jewish society, women did not have the right to divorce.  But a man could divorce his wife, as it says in Deuteronomy 24:1, because “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.”  So, here Jesus is asking us to go behind the regulation of divorce to understand God’s intention regarding marriage.  The implicit assumption of what Jesus is saying is that God intended monogamy, not serial polygamy.  Biblical scholar, Douglas O’Hare, suggests that while Jesus is stating God’s best case scernario regarding marriage, he knows

there are numerous instances in which a marriage is no longer real, whether because of infidelity, neglect, abuse, failure to communicate, or simply unresolved tensions regarding reciprocal expectations.  While every effort should be made to redeem fractured marriages, some must be acknowledged as beyond repair[i]. 

When a married couple can’t help each other grow emotionally and spiritually, divorce may be a positive step.   

The last prohibition that Jesus refers to is in relation to Leviticus 19:12, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God…”  To get around this prohibition on swearing by God or God’s name, people would swear by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem or their own heads.  Jesus is not contradicting the prohibition on swearing falsely but points beyond it.  Jesus is saying that God’s will for us is to be absolutely truthful in our words and faithful to our commitments.  When we exercise such truthfulness and faithfulness, no oath can enhance either. When Jesus says, “Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one,” he is telling us that oaths make the truth suspect, whatever detracts from the truth is not from God.

At the deepest level, today’s Gospel is about right relationships through living, not just the letter of the law but deeper.  We must live the spirit of the commandments.  It is prompting us to understand that Jesus’ command to love God and neighbour is the key to the commandments and to Scripture.

Please share your thoughts. 

[i] Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993, p. 54

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