Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014
Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014
Our first reading today is from Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus and more often today The Wisdom of Sirach. It is not a book accepted as the official Word of God in Jewish scriptures, though it is often quoted and referred to in Jewish literature, and it was written very close in time to the Christian era. For this reason, although the Catholics and Anglicans accept it as part of the Bible, most Protestant churches do not. In any case, we don’t often get readings from it in the liturgy as we do today. Basically it is a book of proverbs, written or collected by the author Sirach who actually signed the book. If it has a basic theme, it might be that following the Torah, the regulations that God has prescribed, will bring great happiness. If we had been able to sing the actual psalm of the day today, Psalm 119, we would have sung the words: “Blessed are those who walk in the law of the Lord”. This refrain is a good summary of the Wisdom of Sirach.
Our reading begins with the statement: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and they will save you. If you trust in God, you too will live.” In this excerpt he concept of our having free will is very strong. We have the choice to keep the regulations of God, or not to. Sirach then develops the reason why we should decide to do so: it will make us happy. His imagery is, of course, very black and white and definitely skewed to following God. He says we have the choice of water or fire, life or death, good or evil. We get to choose. God will not interfere, though in his wisdom he has shown us a way to make a good choice.
By chance, the continuing section we are reading of St. Paul to the church at Corinth actually fits in very well with Sirach today. Paul also speaks of God’s wisdom and the fact that God has known for all eternity what was planned. We didn’t know it until Jesus actually came, Paul says, nor did the political leaders of the day, or they would never have had Jesus put to death. But, as Christians, we are very blessed because the Spirit has been sent to reveal everything to us, even those things which had been hidden from us. We then hear the beautiful words Paul quotes from the Jewish scriptures: What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” So, like Sirach’s argument, Paul tells us that love of the Lord and following the Lord will bring us happiness. God has it all ready for us; we only have to choose it.
Our Gospel reading today is a longer one and there is much that could be said about it. I would like to start by talking about some of the research I have been doing in my preparation for today’s homily. There is a group of Jews that exists today called Messianic Jews. They are not members of any Christian churches but are Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They accept all the books of the Bible, both Old and New Covenant, but they remain Jews. One of these Messianic Jews, David Stern, has translated the Jewish and Christian scriptures into one continuous book he calls the Complete Jewish Bible, and there is a huge commentary on the books of the New Covenant which look at it from a Jewish point of view, since, as he says, all the writers were Jewish and came from Jewish backgrounds.
At the beginning of the Gospel today, Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. Stern says a number of interesting things about this saying of Jesus (1). First, he says that the word “Law” that we use to translate Torah, is not really correct. It has too many legalistic overtones in our Roman culture. First of all he says “Teachings” would be a better translation, for that is what the first five books of the Bible – what is meant by Law here – actually is. It is the Teaching of God. Jesus then tells his disciples that he has not come to get rid of the Teachings and the Prophets, “not to modify or replace God’s word” (2). He has come to fulfill it. Stern says that fulfill implies that it changes into something else, that the “Church has replaced the Jews as God’s people” (3) when a word like complete would be a better choice. Jesus came to complete our understanding of the Hebrew covenant so that we can more effectively live up to what God’s word says to be and do. I think that this is one of the reasons we still have readings each week from the Hebrew Testament, even though over the centuries people have tried to downplay the Jewishness of Scripture.
This then changes the meaning of the second half of what Jesus says: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”. Jesus has not displaced the Old Testament, but is himself proof, as Messiah, that everything in the Scriptures will come to pass. He hasn’t re-written anything.
What he has done, though, is to give us a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. First of all he says just as our first two readings do, that happiness, that is, the achieving of the kingdom of heaven, is dependent on choosing to doing and teaching others to do the Teachings of the Scriptures. This is the statement that binds together all of our readings today, and I re-iterate the theme: Happiness is achieved by choosing to follow and do the Teachings of God.
Next Jesus raises the bar on the Biblical moral teachings. He describes how we can be perfect. Unfortunately not quoted at the end of our reading today is the final line, which we will read next week: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus knows we can not be perfect as God is perfect, but he raises the bar for us to try. It is not enough just to be good and follow the commandments. We must reach for perfection. So Jesus goes into more depth about those teachings from the Scriptures , specifically looking at examples from the Ten Commandments.
What Jesus adds in each case is “intention”. It is not really enough not to murder, for example, but there are many ways to “murder” someone. It can be hate in one’s mind for another, it can be destroying the reputation of another, it can be taking revenge – even if it is just something you think about. If you harbor these feelings, you must reconcile yourself with the other person.
Jesus repeats the same process with the seventh commandment: “Do not commit adultery” by also looking at intent. When we look at someone with lust, we are on our way to adultery. On the issue of divorce, Jewish law allowed divorce and didn’t give any specific reason when divorce was allowed. It was extremely lax and especially hurt women. Jesus seems to limit it to unfaithfulness. In Jesus’ time women were not allowed to divorce, and if their husbands just abandoned them without a writ of just cause – a common problem – they remained married and this would be an example of an innocent party not being allowed to remarry and being exploited. Jesus did permit exceptions that legitimize divorce, but Jesus is always on the side of the innocent party. “In the Jewish society of Jesus’ day, remarriage was always assumed for the innocent party unless prohibited for some specific reason.” (4) When Jesus says: “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” he seems to be speaking of the couple’s actual marriage ceremony. He does not say the man is a continual adulterer. If we put all this in context, we know that Jesus elsewhere says that everything can be forgiven. All of this is very complex and reasons for divorce are very complex. All we need to know here is that the ideal of marriage is that it last and it should not be tainted by unfaithfulness in thought or action, especially since thoughts lead to actions. We can’t all meet that ideal… but we must strive for it.
The last example is from the commandment about not giving false witness and it is a plea to be perfectly honest, so that your “yes” and “no” will be enough to be accepted as truth by everyone. For a person known to be a speaker of truth, oaths are unnecessary. Jesus says that oaths for every trivial thing, which was common in his day, is unnecessary, and makes the oath-swearer look like a liar.
So, how can we put into practice what we hear today? First, we know that we all want to be happy. We know that happiness can’t be bought, but it can be earned by feeling good about yourself and your relationship to others. Following the teachings of God and Jesus can bring happiness. Secondly, never stop trying to be perfect. Don’t be discouraged – keep reaching for that bar. And if we fail to achieve it, which we will often do, we know that we can have God’s forgiveness, we can be sorry and we can try again. And this forgiveness is some of the best news we can have, and it is the Good News God offers us today.
1.Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1989. p. 25
2.Stern ibid, p. 25
3. Stern ibid, p. 25
4. Burge, Gary M. “Directions: You’re Divorced- Can You Remarry” in Christianity Today, Oct 4,1999
Bishop Ron Stephens
Auxiliary Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese
Of the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)
Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA
[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – Teaching the Church Year”]