Scripture and the Liturgy

Correcting Moses: 6th Sunday of OT

(These commentaries are available in book form here.)

The “Hippie” Jesus is one of the common misunderstandings of Christ that are circulating in popular culture.  People think of Jesus as a laid back guru who traveled around Israel in this Volkswagen Vanagon, accompanied by twelve dudes in tie-died T-shirts.  Jesus taught that all we need is Love, and not to be so uptight, like all those rule-bound priests and scribes.

Of course, that view of Jesus is wrong.  People adopt it, however, because they misunderstand the nature of Jesus’ conflict with the priests, scribes, and Pharisees that dominated Jewish religious practice in his day.  Because Jesus criticizes them for the way they practice the law, people get the impression that Jesus was against law in general.  But that’s sadly wrong.  Jesus’ criticisms were leveled at the way religious authorities in his day (1) did not interpret the law properly, by allowing lesser principles (e.g. ritual purity) override larger principles (e.g. mercy and justice); (2) did not practice what they taught; and (3) employed complicated legal reasoning to avoid the ethical demands of the moral law. 

The Pharisees were not righteous people.  Rather, they were wealthy persons who used their legal training to create loopholes so they would not have to do the right thing in painful situations.  In this Sunday’s Readings, Jesus calls us to face up to the full demands of God’s moral law, without rationalizing or making excuses for ourselves.

1. The First Reading is Sir 15:15-20:

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
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.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.

         Sirach is the last of the wisdom books in the Catholic order of the canon, and may be regarded as a massive summation of the Israelite wisdom tradition composed c. 200 BC.  In fact, Sirach is truly a meditation on the entire body of Israel’s Scriptures from the perspective of wisdom, that is, the practical knowledge of successful living.  Because Sirach provides such a useful digest of the moral message of the Old Testament Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church book.”

         Sirach is known by many names.  The full title of the book in antiquity, in Greek and probably Hebrew as well, was “The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach” (cf. Sir 50:27).  A plethora of shortened titles in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin can be found in the Fathers and the rabbis of antiquity, including “Wisdom,” “Wisdom of Jesus,” “Book of Wisdom,” “Wisdom of Sirach,” “Proverbs of Jesus of Sirach,” and others.  The brief title ben Sira (“son of Sirach”) eventually prevailed in the Jewish tradition, and this name is often used in scholarly writing today, for the book and for it’s author.  As mentioned, the Latin tradition eventually bestowed on it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” although St. Jerome’s title in the Vulgate was Liber Iesu Filii Sirach, “The Book of Jesus son of Sirach.”  Since any title including “Wisdom” is easily confused with the Wisdom of Solomon, and “Ecclesiasticus” with Ecclesiastes, the name “Sirach” has now become common in modern Catholic discourse, and this is the title we will use below.

         Sirach was highly respected among the rabbis of antiquity, and citations can be found in rabbinical literature where it is quoted as Scripture.  Greek-speaking Jews in diaspora throughout the Roman Empire also received it as inspired.  Despite the fact that it was originally written in Hebrew, however, it was rejected from the rabbinic Jewish canon of Scripture, perhaps because it was considered to have been written too late, after the age of prophetic inspiration.  Nonetheless, within the Church, Sirach was received as canonical and was commonly quoted as Scripture by many of the Fathers, even if it was omitted from some early lists of the canon.

         There are many striking similarities between Our Lord’s teaching and the proverbs of Sirach.  In today’s reading, Sirach emphasizes human free will, and the fact that salvation can be obtained by following the commandments of God.  God’s commandments are not meant to be burdensome restrictions, but rather helpful instructions and guidance into how to live well in this world and in the next.  Lying, cheating, stealing, committing adultery—and any other violation of a commandment that there may be—are practices that ruin our lives and the lives of those around us over time. 

         Sirach reminds us that “to none does he give license to sin.”  In previous ages, there may have been a tendency to excuse the sins of high ranking persons—kings, princes, bishops—based on the thought that certain persons’ importance or status excused them from the standards that applied to others.  Nowadays, perhaps the tendency is to excuse persons who are under stress—either poverty, sickness, or some marginalization—as if undergoing these trials gives us a license to break the moral law.  But this is misguided.  Even undergoing personal trials does not make it right for us to break the law, to lash out in anger, to take what is not ours, to lie to make things easier on ourselves.  Neither great privilege nor great privation excuses us from doing what is right.  “To none does he give license to sin.”

         We have to remind ourselves that in times of suffering, it may feel good temporarily to sin, but in the long run it backfires.  When under duress, we are tempted to indulge in illicit pleasures as a form of escape, or to lie, cheat, and steal to make our situation easier.  However, sin does not lead to happiness.  It damages our souls and our relationships with those around us.  It’s a bit like when you got that childhood rash, and the urge to scratch it was hard to resist.  But the doctor told you, “Don’t scratch!  It will just make it spread!”  So it is in times of suffering.  We want to take moral short cuts that will lead to temporary alleviation of our difficulties.  But instead we are slowly digging ourselves into a worse situation.  “To none does he give license to sin.”

Responsorial Psalm Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34

R. (1b) Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.

R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Be good to your servant, that I may live
and keep your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.

R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Instruct me, O LORD, in the way of your statutes,
that I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.

R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

Psalm 119 is the longest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible.  It is an acrostic poem consisting of twenty-two stanzas each consisting of eight lines.  Each set of eight lines begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working from aleph to taw, the first and last letters.  It is a poetic tour de force, a comprehensive praise of the law of God, from “A” to “Z.”  At one stage of the Psalter’s development, this psalm probably was the last, forming a bookend with Psalm 1. 

In this Psalm the sacred author displays an attitude towards God’s law which is greatly at odds with contemporary attitudes.  For the Psalmist, God’s law is not a burden or restriction, but a delightful guidance into the ways of God, the paths to follow in order to walk closely with the LORD day by day.  The Psalmist takes delight in carefully doing what is right, following God’s will perfectly, down to the last detail.  He does not do this out of some disordered legalism, but out of love.  He is grateful for the law, because the law shows him how to lead a life pleasing to God, and pleasing his beloved LORD is the sole motivating factor of the Psalmist’s life. 

How different this is from contemporary attitudes, that regard all law as some kind of oppressive imposition, and entertain the fantasy of a perfect society as some kind of anarchic paradise of pleasure-seeking.  Even within the Church there are voices that criticize the attempt to think clearly and consistently about the moral teaching of the Scriptures and the Church, as if the desire to live a life completely in keeping with divine law is some kind of spiritual pathology.

2. The Second Reading is 1 Cor 2:6-10:

Brothers and sisters:
We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
and which none of the rulers of this age knew;
for, if they had known it,
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But as it is written:
What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.

For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

St. Paul speaks to us of the Spirit, which at first seems at odds with the theme of God’s law present in the other readings.  But St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that the new law of the new covenant is nothing other than the grace of the Holy Spirit.  It’s often missed, for example, that the Jewish feast of Pentecost was the liturgical celebration of the gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  On this memorial, God poured out his Spirit on the early Church, giving them the true law written not on tablets of stone, but on the human heart.

That the Holy Spirit writes the law on the heart, does not mean it is less demanding than the law written on stone.  Quite the opposite!  The old law could be twisted and misinterpreted, but there is no escape from the moral truth that the Holy Spirit reveals to our heart and conscience.  We may be able to justify ourselves by rationalization to others, but we cannot escape the conviction in our inner court of conscience, where we must face the voice of the Spirit with none to mediate.

4. The Gospel is Mt 5:17-37:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin,
tear it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said,
Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.
But I say to you,
whoever divorces his wife –  unless the marriage is unlawful –
causes her to commit adultery,
and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath,
but make good to the Lord all that you vow.
But I say to you, do not swear at all;
not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the evil one.”


Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with brother
will be liable to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath,
but make good to the Lord all that you vow.
But I say to you, do not swear at all.
Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the evil one.”

This is one of my favorite passages of the Gospels, and I require all my New Testament students to memorize the opening verse (Matt 5:17) concerning the mission to fulfill rather than abolish the Law and the Prophets. 

This Gospel passage explodes the narrative that Jesus came to dumb down the moral law in order to make it easier to get to heaven.  Jesus dumbs down the law not in the least.  In the four antitheses (contradictions) that we have in this Gospel reading (you have heard that it was said … but I say to you …) Jesus does not loosen the moral requirements of Moses, but tightens them.  Moses did not go far enough, Jesus is saying.  The Mosaic law governed external actions, but unless you undergo interior transformation as well, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  In the remainder of the Gospel, we come to learn that this interior transformation can only be accomplished through the gift of the Spirit.  But the Spirit is given not to excuse us from the law or give us a license to sin, but rather to empower us to fulfill God’s law perfectly, not merely externally but also internally.  Jesus’ teaching in this passage tends, after all, to direct our attention to the interior dispositions (like anger) that are at the root of external actions (like murder). 

         Jesus’ moral standards are much more demanding than those of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees tended to be concerned only with the exterior performance of the law, and they became expert in developing contorted and convoluted legal chains of reasoning in order to circumvent the demands of divine law.  In particular, they permitted divorce and remarriage for any number of reasons, with some Rabbis saying that any cause at all sufficed for a divorce, even the mere fact that a man found a younger, more attractive woman.

         Jesus was radically opposed to this effort to extrapolate legal reasoning in order to get around the clear demands of morality and divine law.  He warns his followers: “Unless your righteousness surpassess that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  It must exceed their righteousness, because their righteousness was largely external, and relied on exterior actions in accord with the traditional interpretations of the old law.  It was not a righteousness motivated by love.  It was a righteousness that said, “What is the least I have to do and the most I can get away with, and still not formally break the divine command?”  Jesus attitude, like the attitude of the Psalmist, is rather, “What is most pleasing to God?  That is the only thing I desire to do.”

         It is not easy to follow Jesus’ laws—in fact, it is impossible unless we share his Spirit.  Then, we can rejoice with St. Paul that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us,” (Rom. 5:5 my translation) and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10 RSV2CE).

         At this Eucharistic celebration, let us pray that our Eucharistic communion will arouse within us the gift of the Spirit given in Baptism and Confirmation.  Let us pray that the graces of the Eucharist will replenish the Holy Spirit’s love in our hearts, that we may love and not resent the law of God, and see it for what it truly is: the way of peace and communion with our Lord.

(If you’d like to visit the beautiful Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, please come with me for a holy land pilgrimage June 23-July 2, 2023. All the information is here. We are still accepting pilgrims.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: