Theme: The significance of Law
Since time immemorial, law has been observed. In its clarity, law provided social order. To hurt abuse or steal from one another is forbidden. But what is Law? It is a deliberated policy that outlines acceptable customs, practices and rules meant to govern and bind communities, institutions and nation. Written Codes of law dating from 2400 B.C have been unearthed by archaeologists in the ancient city of Ebla/ Tell Mardikh in present day Syria. Among them the best known law code which to some extent influenced Hebrew legislation is the law of Hammurabi King of Babylon dating eighteenth century B.C. In the course of his 58-year reign, King Hammurabi collected and composed a series of legal decisions concerning family life, civil, crime, customs tariffs, prices and trade. King Hammurabi ordered that these laws be inscribed on a diorite stela which was enshrined in the temple of Marduk. In the era of Judaeo-Christian, the law of God/Torah/Commandments is written in human hearts; an idea that pervades today’s liturgy.
First reading: Sirach 15:15-20
An amusing story narrates about a group of theologians who were once debating predestination and free will. Their arguing escalated to the point that the group divided into two factions. But one theologian was undecided as to which group he supported; finally he decided to side with those who believed in predestination. When he came to join them, they asked, ‘Who sent you here? ’ ‘Nobody’, he replied, ‘I came of my own free will!’ ‘Free will?!’ they shouted. You belong to the other group; they told him pointing a finger. When he turned and tried to join the proponents of free will, inquired, ‘When did you decide to join us?’ ‘I didn’t decide,’ the theologian responded. ‘I was sent here!’ At this, the group shut him out saying, ‘You can’t join us unless you choose to do so by your own free will.’ In the end, the theologian was excluded from both groups. A similar debate concerning human free will forms the backdrop for today’s first reading from Joshua ben Sira.
As is attested in both Old and New Testaments, the biblical authors, in general, did not distinguish between God’s active will which aids and intends the well-being of all creatures and his passive will which knows all things and yet allows the exercise of human freedom. Therefore, there are instances in Holy Bible which seem to imply that God has predestined/ willed a person to sin cf. Exodus 11:10; or that God has caused political, economic, spiritual and physical calamities which bring suffering to humankind. Sirach was aware of these ideas as he attested, “Good and evil, life and death, poverty and riches are from the Lord” Sirach 11:14; however, in today’s text he makes it clear that God has given human beings freedom and free will. Thus it is not God who is responsible for evil in the world. The responsibility for sin which causes death or goodness which leads to life is from free choice of the human person who is at liberty to choose between good and evil of life and death. Therefore, it is not true that before an impending decision, the human person is helpless. Today, those who publicize their freedom of choice as a right that supersedes God’s instruction, such as killing the innocent more so the unborn babies need to remember these words “if you wish, you can keep the commandments. . . before you are life and death, whichever you choose shall be given you” Sirach 15:15-17.
Second reading: 1Corinthians 2:6-10
It is difficult to instruct someone who pretends to already knows everything. Paul encountered such a difficulty while evangelizing Corinth. As this text indicates, he continued to receive news of resistance to his teaching even after he had left Corinth. This opposition to Paul’s message about Jesus Christ was partly due to presumed elitism fronted by Hellenistic Jews who pretended to know it all; but also from self-styled street preachers like Apollo from Alexandria cf. Acts 18:24-19:1. As a result of these influences, some of Paul’s converts were misled by Hellenistic Jews to believe that they did not possess special wisdom which would make them spiritually superior like them. Besides, these Hellenistic claimed to derive from this wisdom some special perfection which made it possible for them to live in a heavenly sphere with Christ, “the Lord of glory” 1Corinthians 2:8. This pride however caused them to ignore practical realities such as lawful, ethical living and denying historical dimensions of the faith such as the blunt truth of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Paul confronted them with the truth that authentic wisdom was not an achievement of this age, but a revelation of God in the Spirit. While calling the Corinthians to be lovers/philo of the true wisdom/sophia, Paul reminded them that choosing to be self-styled spiritually elite would never make them mature. In order to develop into mature Christians, they would first “have to be fed with milk” 1Corinthians 2:1-21, meaning, the basic message of the Gospel and accepting mystery of the cross and resurrection. After this they would progress to solid food which meant accepting the difficult and daily challenge the Gospel dictates. Paul described wisdom of God as a mystery/mysterion which had been hidden for all ages and was finally made known, not because human speculation had pierced its depths, but because God had chosen to reveal it to the simple and humble through the Cross. Pope Francis teaches that a mystery of faith doesn’t seek publicity.
Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37
At times, frustrations of life may push us to demand for justice. Yet less known to our senses is that Justice is an ideal like truth and beauty. As a sculptor tries to achieve beauty with mallet and chisel, so law is our tool in the pursuit of justice. In this periscope that Matthew refers to as a Grate Sermon he presents Jesus as a great sculptor designing the law so that its intended purpose is achieved. While calling his disciples to righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees who were recognized legal experts of their day cf. Matthew 5:20, Jesus summarizes the law in four hermeneutical principles: 1. The Torah is all commandments including every yodh/jot the smallest letter and serif/title which are little projections at the base of a letter. 2. The teacher is the person of Jesus. 3. The teaching is Jesus’ interpretation of the law; 4. The recipients of the teaching are all potential members of the Kingdom. The sermon does not assert legal requirements but educates us to recognize God’s will and live justly in a friendly way.
By asserting that Jesus came to ‘bring fulfillment’, Matthew indicated that the law and prophets served a preparatory role by pointing towards Jesus the full stop of salvation history cf. Matthew 5:17. The law and prophets had achieved their goal in the coming of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings and actions which included his interpretation of the law were now providing the way to everlasting life. In the contrast which follow Matthew 5: 21-48, part of which comprise today’s gospel, Jesus described the startling nature of his understanding and fulfillment of the law. In each instruction on murder, adultery, divorce and oaths, Jesus sets forth demands of a higher righteousness expected of all Christian disciples. These antitheses thus, distinguish Jesus’ teachings from others because they deepen, intensify and radicalize the commandments by directing attention beyond the latter law to the ultimate intention of the law. In this way, Jesus broadened the ban on murder to include the anger from which murderous intentions arise; while the sin of adultery was expanded to include lust which harbors it. Permission for divorce and oath-taking which had been permitted by a referendum of the Mosaic Law were revoked in favor of the higher demands of the kingdom cf. Deuteronomy 24:1; 23:21, 22. The law, as interpreted by Jesus, presumed the observance of the Decalogue as a minimum requirement and challenged everyone to do beyond the minimum in order acquire authentic holiness which is the real eschatological measure. In Jesus, revelation reaches its completion as intended by God.
Today, Sirach reminds us that we are free to obey God’s Commandments or to reject them since no one is coerced. Yet freedom is not free because the choices we make determine our life consequences now and forever. Therefore we must make objective because life is not a joke. Paul reminds us that it is our duty to collaborate in the plan of our salvation by deciding on which type of life style we would like to adopt. Matthew confirms that in Jesus we have the fulfillment the Torah and Prophets which makes us blessed and lucky; our duty is simply to make sure that we are holy and capable. That being the case, we are invited to stop being mere admirers of Jesus and start being his serious, sincere committed followers and witnesses. Today is the day to choose Jesus as our everything and our all.