16 February 2020 – Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
First reading: Ecclesiasticus 15:16-21
Psalm 118(119):1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
Second reading: 1 Corinthians
Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors; but I say this to you ‘For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. ‘You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court; if a man calls his brother “Fool” he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny. ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell. ‘It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. ‘Again, you have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not break your oath, but must fulfil your oaths to the Lord. But I say this to you: do not swear at all, either by heaven, since that is God’s throne; or by the earth, since that is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, since that is the city of the great king. Do not swear by your own head either, since you cannot turn a single hair white or black. All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’
In the Gospel, Matt 5:17-37 (or selections therefrom) Jesus insists that he has not come to abolish ‘the law and the prophets’ but to ‘fulfil’ or bring them to completion. It is important to note how Jesus ranges ‘the prophets’ alongside ‘the law’. The prophets indicate God’s will for the messianic age. Jesus will fulfil the law by interpreting it in the light of the priority Israel’s prophets gave to values such as justice, mercy and faith in human interrelationship (see Matt 23:23). This will entail a ‘righteousness (‘virtue’ is a lame translation) ‘deeper’ than that practised by the scribes and Pharisees.
There follow what we might call six ‘case studies’ illustrating this deeper righteousness. Four are cited in this week’s Gospel, two left for next Sunday. As authoritative interpreter, Jesus cites a ruling from the Torah, appealing to Scripture, and then modifies, radicalises, or extends it in some direction. What he cites is usually a prohibition (‘Thou shalt not …’). What he sets over against it is a pronouncement that seeks to go beyond mere external restraint to plant the value enshrined in the prohibition deep within the human heart.
So over against the prohibition ‘You shall not kill …,’ Jesus addresses the anger in the heart that can lead to an increasing scale of insult and injury to another, of which murder would be simply the most extreme case. Reconciliation with an aggrieved brother or sister is so supremely important as to take priority over the duty of worship. Particularly noteworthy is the delicacy of what Jesus counsels: Not ‘if you have something against your brother of sister,’ but ‘if you remember (= ‘suspect’) that your brother or sister has something against you, …’).
The same radical sense of going to the heart is explicit in the next ruling dealing with sexual behavior. The old commandment simply prohibited adultery. In a way that actually sounds very contemporary Jesus insists that the problem begins with perception: with a man’s fundamental attitude to a woman. Is she an object for male sexual exploitation (lust)? Or is she a fellow human being with whom dealings in any area, including the sexual, must be based upon equality of relationship, fidelity and consent? When the latter prevails, the old prohibition simply becomes unnecessary.
The next pronouncement deals with the delicate area of fidelity in marriage. The old dispensation looked at the issue entirely from the male perspective and set in place (the Mosaic divorce ruling) what is basically a ‘harm minimisation’ procedure for the woman. Jesus excludes divorce absolutely, save in the case of adultery (also 19:9). His exclusion, again, stems from a more holistic view of marriage as a lifelong union of equals bound not by law but by mutual fidelity and companionship. In a contemporary situation where communities of believers contain many members in second marriages or whose family members are in such unions, preaching will have to handle this particular pronouncement with pastoral sensitivity. It will be important to ensure that Jesus’ teaching (pronounced in a social situation very different from ours today, especially in terms of life expectancy), does not add to burdens already in place.
The same kind of quest for fidelity in relationships motivates the final pronouncement: against the taking of oaths. Such trust and faithfulness should prevail in the community of the Kingdom that, to have their word taken seriously, its members should not have to have recourse to such procedures – fraught with the danger of taking God’s holy name in vain.
RESPECT FOR OTHERS
Looking back, what draws all these pronouncements of Jesus together is a sense of human life as essentially relational: it flourishes where respect, faithfulness, and consideration of the other prevail.
The Second Reading, 1 Cor 2:6-10, reflects Paul’s consciousness that what God has in store for us surpasses the capacity of ordinary human knowledge or imagination to grasp. It requires a ‘hidden wisdom’ communicated only through the gift of the Spirit. It is a consoling passage for those troubled by what life beyond death might involve.