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6th Sunday – Year A (February 16th) E-mail
Written by Nicholas King SJ   
Wednesday, 18 December 2013 12:49

•    Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20
•    Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
•    1 Corinthians 2:6-10
•    Matthew 5:17-37

There is a danger that we may be rather grudging in our attitudes to “Law”; unless we are careful, we can find ourselves regarding it as an imposition, a burden that we have to shoulder, like those who keep the speed limit only because there is a camera waiting to catch us. The readings for next Sunday show quite a different attitude on the part of God’s people.

In the first reading, written, or translated, for a society that in many ways resembles ours, technologically brilliant, and fertile in new ideas that tended to make traditional religion appear embarrassingly out of date, the author, Jesus ben Sira, insists that it is, after all, possible, even in this age, to “keep the commandments”: it is a matter of what you choose. “Human beings have before them life and death, and whatever they choose will be given them – for the Lord’s wisdom is huge.” And it is no good our putting the blame for our sinfulness on God, for “he has not commanded anyone to act godlessly, and has not given anyone permission to sin”.

The psalm for next Sunday is from the long psalm 119, a song of praise for the gift to us that is God’s law: “happy are those who...walk in the Law of the Lord”. This Law is not understood as an imposition or punishment; it is a signpost towards a happy and fulfilled life – “happy are those who seek the Lord with all their heart...open my eyes, that I may see the wonders of your Law.” This is not a reluctant acceptance of God’s authority; the psalmist has understood that we have a God who loves us enough to let us know how to live, and to guide us “to keep [your Law] with all my heart”.

Paul, in the second reading, is talking to people, his converts in Corinth, who think that they know better, and that all this “law” business is out of date; “wisdom” (which we might translate as “spin-doctoring”) is where it is really at.  Paul’s claim is that in Christianity we have a wisdom that is going to last, the “wisdom of God”, the insight that would have prevented the “rulers of this world from crucifying the Lord of Glory”.  It is dangerously easy to get these things badly wrong, and we need to listen to God’s Law.

In the gospel for next Sunday, continuing our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Jesus considers this question of the Law. Against some opponents who had evidently been saying that “You Christians are denying God’s gift of the Law”, we hear Jesus insist that “I have not come to destroy the Law but to fulfil it”, and that you cannot mess about with even the least important letter in the alphabet, if it is a part of God’s Law. If you want to be “great in the Kingdom of Heaven”, then you must keep the Law, and teach others to do the same. Not only that, but “your righteousness has to be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees” (and Jesus’ audience can hardly have imagined any righteousness as great as that). Then Jesus gives us a hint of what he means, and if we understand it correctly, it is all rather alarming, for his claim is apparently that the Law does not go far enough. In our extract from the gospel, he takes four quotations from the Law, “You are not to kill...you are not to commit adultery...if you divorce your wife, give her a certificate...you are not to perjure yourself”, and not only insists on their continuing validity, but actually makes their interpretation more severe: not killing includes being angry with your brother or sister (possibly your fellow-Christian), calling them “Raka”, which may not be an immense temptation to you, or “Fool”, which may be. You are not even to go to mass if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you. And adultery is re-interpreted to include even looking admiringly at a woman; divorce is absolutely forbidden, except for adultery, and all oath-taking, not just when it is a matter of lying, is prohibited: Christians should be known for their integrity. We shiver at this suggestion, and wonder if we can possibly be expected to take it at all seriously; but think about it a bit, and you will see the sanity in all these ideas. God’s Law is, after all, a gift to us, a signpost in the darkness of our lives.