Monday, February 14, 2011

Gospel: Wisdom and the Law

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle (I say to you)

In today’s readings we literally pick up where we left off last week. In the gospel we don’t even skip a verse in Matthew’s fifth chapter, and in the second reading we just continue reading from St. Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthians. Even though our first reading is from the book of Sirach, it just continues in the same vein as last week’s reading from Isaiah.

Sirach introduces us to the idea of choice.

If you trust in God, you too shall live;
He has set before you fire and water;
To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
Whichever he chooses shall be given him.

How do we make the choice? On what basis do we choose? So often scripture talks about wisdom and regards it as greater than silver or gold. What is wisdom. All of us know that the smartest or most educated people are not always the wisest. It is just as easy for PhDs to mess up their lives and make bad decisions as everyone else. I can honestly say that my immigrant grandparents, who never even completed grade school, were among the wisest people I have ever known.

It can be said that the ability to make decisions is the mark of a wise person. In politics, business, or even sports we admire the decision makers. How often do we hear announcers say that the quarterback made a good or bad decision right before he was about to be crushed by onrushing linebackers?

Whatever our age we are all going to face life’s decisions. Teenagers will sweat over which college to attend, or which career to pursue. Their parents will have to decide what steps they will take or what sacrifices to make to pay the expected costs. Many people today are facing very tough career choices, especially if they have been forced to change careers. The elderly might have to decide whether to stay in the old house or downsize.

Everyone will say that the wisdom to make the right decision comes more from life experience than from book learning. In films and literature the wise are often portrayed as elderly to indicate years of life experience. We often speak of “wise, old owls.” Nevertheless, we know that it is possible for even the experienced to make bad decisions, especially when they are personally involved.

Most of us need a mentor, a trusted advisor or counselor who can help with our decisions, especially the big ones. In today’s gospel Matthew presents Jesus in the role of advisor. It might sound like he is just issuing commands or orders, but throughout this long reading Jesus is urging us to avoid basing our lives on rigid adherence to a set of rules and regulations but to consider the spirit of the commandments.

This is what he meant by urging his followers to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees who were known for their strict adherence to the letter of the Law. However, Jesus calls them hypocrites because they often evade the spirit of the Law. When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees , he speaks to us.

We know that it is wrong to kill but anger is just as bad. We know that we must love God but how can we if we are not on speaking terms with our brother or sister. We know that it is wrong to defraud our neighbor but why wait until we’re caught to make amends. We know that adultery is wrong but why lead ourselves into temptation. The wise will avoid what used to be called temptation or occasions of sin.

If your right eye causes you to sin,
Tear it out and throw it away…
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
Cut if off and throw it away.

Jesus uses divorce as just another example. He says that just because a man (and he is talking about men here, since women had no legal rights in those days) can find a legal way to get rid of his wife, does not mean that he can evade his responsibility. Just because of a legal technicality a man is not free to discard his wife for someone else. His wife is not a slave.

Perhaps nowhere in modern society do we face such difficult choices as in the area of love and marriage. Today so many people find it so difficult to make the commitment necessary to enter into marriage. Moreover, the choices become even more difficult when a marriage goes bad. Even on St. Valentine’s day we know that so many marriages that began with undying professions of love, will end in anger and bitterness.

Jesus calls divorce a sin because it hurts all those involved--husband, wife, children, parents etc. Nevertheless, the cure for the hurt is not to turn from God. So many Catholics believe that divorce has excommunicated them from the love of God. Yet, St. Paul, a true Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, told us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Reading 1 Sirach 15: 15-20
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10
Gospel. Matthew 5:17-37 (But I say to you).

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