The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – 16 February 2020
Lectionary Readings: Sir 15:15-20; Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Matt 5:17-37
Theme: Following God’s Torah
The wisdom of following God’s Torah, God’s teachings, is the theme of our readings today. The book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus), written in the second century BCE, stands in a long tradition of wisdom literature. Chapter 15, from where our reading is taken, begins: “Whoever grasps the Law will obtain wisdom”, thus equating Wisdom with the Torah. Happiness is ours if we “meditate on wisdom”, but the choice is also ours: “We have life and death before us; whichever we like better will be given us.” This echoes Moses’ words to the people in Deuteronomy: “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: a blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD our God … a curse, if you disobey.” (Deut 11:26-28) “Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live, in the love of the LORD your God, obeying God’s voice, clinging to God, for in this your life consists.” (Deut 30:19f.)
Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms, extolling the Torah, speaking of the happiness of those who strive to live according to it. Today, sadly, we read only a few scattered verses, but they at least give us a flavour of this beautiful psalm and its important message: “Teach me … to observe your law, to keep it with my heart.”
Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel continues Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Here he, too, speaks of the crucial importance of living according to God’s Torah as well as the words of the prophets, who urged God’s people to do this with every fibre of their being. For Matthew, the law and the prophets continue to be authoritative for Christians, interpreted in the light of the teaching of Jesus, especially his commandment to love – “as I have loved you”. Jesus speaks not of abandoning, but of “completing” the law and the prophets, or bringing them to a fullness, a new depth. Matthew’s readers are contrasted sharply with another group: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In order to understand Matthew’s diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees of his own day, we have to realise that he is writing between 80 and 100 CE, a time when he and his early Christian community are coming to terms with the trauma of separation from Judaism and with the continuing threat of hostility and persecution of those who did not accept Jesus as the Christ. It’s possible that he wrote his gospel in Antioch, a city which contained several synagogues and it’s not hard to envisage the tensions there which seem to be reflected in Matthew’s Gospel between dominant Jewish synagogues and his smaller, mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian community. Matthew’s anti-Jewish polemic seen in our reading and all through his Gospel should be understood as part of the self-definition of this Christian minority. Attributing this polemic to Jesus might have been a source of comfort to them, but has proved problematic to later generations, such as our own and has sadly been the source of much misguided anti-Jewish teaching.
Paul, in his Letter to the community of Christians in Corinth, also speaks of the wisdom of loving God, and of the happiness promised to those who do so – “no eye has seen and no ear has heard … all that God has prepared for those who love the Eternal One.”