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February 12th 2017 (A) Sixth Sunday of the Year

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Can the Gospel call to perfection be lived?

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 15:16-20). He never commanded anyone to be godless. The passage 15:11-20 of this book speaks of the individuals’ free will and their responsibility with regard to sin. At the time this book was written (about 180 BC) a matter being discussed in Israel was the reason for the existence of sin. One theory held that it was due to the sin of the angels against God and the illicit union of angels with mortals. Sin, then, would be a force in its own right, negating human responsibility. Another view was that in each mortal there were two forces at work, a force for good and a force for evil. Sirach gives a very clear answer, in keeping with the teaching of Genesis on the creation of the first mortals and the general Old Testament teaching. God created mortals with a free will and they are responsible for their actions. No human is in bondage to any hidden force. In the verses immediately before the present passage the author says: “Do not say, ‘It is the Lord’s doing that I fell away’, for he does not do what he hates. ... It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice”, that is, with free will. From this there follows the beginning of today’s reading: “If you wish you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power”. The reading ends in like manner: “He (God) never commanded anyone to be godless; he has given no one permission to sin”.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 118[119]). They are happy who follow God’s law.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 2:6-10). God predestined wisdom to be for our glory before the ages began. This reading is a continuation of that read last Sunday. In this reading Paul continues to compare Christian wisdom to the human wisdom that did not understand God’s saving plan in Jesus Christ. He says that he does teach wisdom to those who have reached maturity, that is, to those who have passed beyond the elementary understanding of the Christian message. This is a special wisdom which comes from God’s free gift of faith, not a human philosophy, much less of “the masters of this age”, by which Paul probably means supernatural powers of evil and the earthly individuals or forces that were their agents, opposing Christ and the Gospel. The hidden wisdom in question is the mystery of God’s salvation that was hidden in God until it was revealed in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, and in the Church. Through the gift of faith all followers of Christ partake of this divine wisdom, even if the unbelieving world around them does not understand it.

The Gospel (Matthew 5:17-37). You have learned how it was said to our ancestors; but I say this to you. This reading is a continuation of that read last Sunday. In this reading Jesus compares his own teaching and the way of life that should follow from it with that of the people of Israel (“those of ancient tines”, “our ancestors”), or possibly with the law given to Moses. In a sense “the law and the prophets” is a manner of describing this teaching and way of life. Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to perfect, to complete them, to bring them to perfection, in this sense to fulfil all that the law and the prophets stood for. There was a certain diversity of views and approach in the early church with regard to the place of thr law of Moses in the Christian community. In so far the practice of it had to do with ethnic identity, it had no role in Paul’s churches, drawn mainly from the non-Jewish community. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine continued to practice it. Jesus was a practising Jew, but in this reading he gives a new understanding of the commandments believed to have been revealed to Moses on Sinai, and he does this with authority, implicitly placing himself above Moses. He brings out deeper implications of the commandments. To take some examples: With regard to the commandment “You shall not kill (murder)” – murder was a most serious sin, even blasphemy since it destroyed the image of God in a human person. Jesus goes beyond the negative “You shall not” to the positive, highlighting the regard and esteem in which the human person should be held, and the actions deriving from this: forgiveness and reconciliation, absence of anger and insulting nicknames, such as Raca (an obscure term of abuse), fool or renegade. (These terms of abuse must have been considered very insulting in the original Aramaic setting, given the severe punishment attached.) Jesus goes beyond adultery, to impure thoughts and desires. He goes beyond the permission to divorce to a complete ban on divorce; beyond the permission and practice of taking oaths to advice to avoid all oaths, and lead a simple life where one’s word should be sufficient guarantee. Jesus’ purpose in all this is made clear at the end of this comparison with “those of ancient times”, which will be read in next Sunday’s gospel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Can the Gospel call to perfection be lived?

In Sirach’s day the question was implicitly put: “Can we keep the commandments”, and answered categorically in the positive by that sage. Similar questions have been put with regard to the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed with regard to many tenets of Catholic moral teaching. Indeed many have complained that the teaching of part of today’s Gospel reading, from the passage “Do not kill” down to “Do not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” is impractical. In this context the words of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor are recalled, to the effect that “Jesus judged humanity too highly”, for “it was created weaker and lower than Christ thought”. With regard to this we may note that this reading, apart from the ban on divorce, is not a law code. Rather is it a presentation of the nature of the kingdom of God, of Christ’s kingdom, and of the perfection to which those within it are called. The passage clearly states that with Jesus a new age has come, and his followers are called to be witnesses to this new age in their way of life.

            This view of the passage agrees with the message of today’s second reading. The gift of faith gives the believer a new wisdom, an insight into God’s plan, and in this, the wisdom of which Pail speaks differs from human wisdom. Of course, this by no means that Paul, and the Church, do not highly regard human wisdom for the conduct of human affairs. As Paul write to the Philippians (4:8): “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”. One clear message of this second reading is that we should never forget that the Church is God’s saving mystery. In dialogue with questions raised in our own day, it is good not to forget this.

            Another matter discussed today is whether we can live in keeping with the Gospel message, or with the morality as taught by the Church. Christ was once addressed a similar question, to which he replied: “For God all things are possible”. This, of course, is no full answer to today’s question. There will be fuller discussion of the matter in the months and years ahead. But in any discussion of the question in relation to the Gospel and the Church, the nature of the church as divine mystery, and the need of grace must be borne in mind.