6th Sunday (A) February 16, 2020

Sirach 15: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Those of us gathered for worship today are very diverse: from different cultural backgrounds, countries of origins, races, etc. But what binds us together is our baptism in Jesus. Whatever our differences and whatever language we speak, we all say together, "We believe in Jesus Christ and so his way is our way." Our basic identity is that we are a community of Jesus’ followers and we love him. Therefore, our love for him urges us to live like him.

But doesn’t hearing the Sermon on the Mount these Sundays leave you weak in the knees? How can we ever live these teachings? How will we even know how to live them? Because of his miracles and teachings Jesus had attracted great crowds. In order to teach those closest to him, he took them up a mountain. Two Sundays ago we heard the Beatitudes, the introduction to a collection of his teachings which we call the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes called for the profound inner change necessary for anyone wanting to follow Jesus. That kind of change is spelled out in his subsequent teachings.

When we hear Jesus’ sermon, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians today is true: we are called to live, not according to the wisdom of this age, but according to God’s wisdom. That wisdom, Paul reminds us, has been revealed to us in the life of Jesus made known to us, "through the Spirit."

Through the gift of the Spirit we have come to accept Jesus Christ as God’s full revelation in the flesh. We need to remind ourselves today that the same Spirit makes it possible for us to live according to Jesus’ teaching. After all, Jesus isn’t just giving us a stricter, higher code of ethics. That’s not what makes his teachings special. Rather, through our baptism and the gift of his Spirit, we have the desire and divine power to live what we are being taught again today. That new Spirit in us is what enables us to live, as Jesus tells us, with a "holiness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.

I’m choosing the short form of the gospel today. The longer offering (5:17–37) just seems like a lot. I don’t want to overwhelm the congregation with a long list of "do’s and don’ts." But even in the shorter version we hear Jesus calling us, not to a superficial, exterior performance of commandments, but to a far more profound response – deeper, interior change that will enable us to do as he instructs.

How discouraged his followers must have been when Jesus taught in this way! After all, the Pharisees were considered the righteous and holy ones. Jesus’ challenge though was not only to his followers, but to the Pharisees and scribes as well. Their religion was to go deeper than exterior works – the right motives had to support right behavior. His demands are high indeed! They seem impossible to achieve.

The Pharisees spent a lot of time and energy fulfilling the Law. They were of the middle class and, unlike the desperately poor, who comprised most of Jesus’s followers, the Pharisees had the education and leisure to pursue purity of observance. What chance did the illiterate, overworked and burdened poor followers of Jesus have? For that matter, what chance do we have in fulfilling these teachings? And yet, Jesus calls for a holiness that surpasses those scribes and Pharisees!

From today’s gospel selection, we hear that Jesus wants to cut short, at its inception, a path that might lead to murder. So, he says to his disciples they are to control their anger. In cases of adultery, families would seek retaliation on the couple because of the shame brought down on those families, especially on the husband. To prevent adultery and the subsequent blood feud that would erupt, Jesus tells his disciples not even to think such a thing – no lusting after another. In addition, good community relations, especially among believers, would be possible if people behaved honestly with one another; if they could trust each other’s words. So, no lying.

Jesus called his disciples to exemplary behavior. Such ways of being with one another, besides forming loving relationships in the community, would also draw attention to that community and to the teachings of the one they followed – Jesus. Today he is giving concrete examples of what we heard him say to his disciples last week. They are to be "salt of the earth," "light of the world" and a "city set on a mountain."

Note the structure for the sayings. Each begins: "You have heard of the commandment…." Then Jesus presents his unique teaching, "But I say to you…." He credits the former teaching and by giving specific examples, calls his disciples to a greater righteousness, a more exacting "law." A "new law."

We Christians are called to a different way of living, in our relations to each other and then to the world. We seek reconciliation where there is anger and alienation. We tame our desires despite the license of the world around us. We are faithful to one another and so, when we make promises, we keep them.

What will help us live the challenges Jesus places before us? Certainly we can’t do it merely by gritting our teeth and putting our nose to the grindstone. Instead, we fix our eyes on Jesus and we turn to each other in mutual love and support. Sound idealistic? Yes it does, but Jesus wouldn’t ask us to fulfill something he wouldn’t help us accomplish.

It is no wonder that our Sirach reading was chosen today. It’s part of the Wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures. According to that tradition human actions have specific consequences. We are free to conform our lives to God’s ordered ways, or not. In today’s reading, though short, the word "choose(s)" is mentioned three times. This Wisdom reading underlines our freedom and so encourages us to use it to make choices in accord with God’s wisdom. As difficult as these choices may be at times, the believer hears Sirach’s words of encouragement: "trust in God, you too will live." We are assured that making these choices will be life-giving, for God’s eyes rest on the faithful. ("The eyes of God are on those who fear God....")

Jesus’ life showed us what the Sermon looks like when enfleshed. He is now our wise teacher who shows us the way to life and gives us his Spirit to help us to choose those life-giving ways. His disciples are to continue putting flesh on the Sermon in their lives. Whatever our circumstances, people who may never read the Sermon on the Mount, should be able to learn its content by examining our lives.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: