Posted by Patrick Clark | Feb 8, 2023 | Lectionary |  |

The readings for this Sunday may be found on the USCCB website:

In one way or another, all the Mass readings for this Sunday point to the enduring importance of divine law. The first line of the first reading, from the book of Sirach, might seem startling to those who remain sensitive the Church’s centuries-long struggle to emphasize the essential role of God’s grace in the moral life: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments” (Sir 15:15). The verse as it appears on the USSCB website even adds “they will save you,” although I could not find this latter phrase included in any modern translation. Although it is usually Protestants who accuse Catholics of being vulnerable to Pelagianism, Pope Francis has not shied away from using the term as a warning against falling prey to a legalistic rigorism. Whether or not Sirach explicitly says that keeping the commandments can merit salvation, he does clearly hold out obedience to the Law as the path to life. Echoing Moses (Deut 30) and Joshua (Josh 24), Sirach portrays the choice between obedience and sin as ultimately a choice between life and death: “Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before everyone are life and death, whichever they choose will be given them” (Sir 15:16-17).  If one stopped here, one could get the sense that Sirach is simply laying down the gauntlet of the divine command, and setting out the consequences of heeding or eschewing it, as if to say “this is God’s command; take it or leave it. Everyone will get what they deserve in the end.” Yet Sirach goes on from here to speak about “the wisdom of the Lord,” and that “he sees all things. The eyes of God behold his works, and he understands every human deed” (Sir 15:18-19). With these words, Sirach places the commandments within the context of  God’s knowledge and providential care. They are not extrinsic directives intended for God’s own benefit, nor are they arbitrary tests of loyalty. They are part and parcel of the Creator’s plan to give us life. They are for us. God knows us more than we know ourselves, and so knows what will make us truly happy in the end. They proceed from, and are in a sense bounded by, God’s goodness towards his creation. “He never commands anyone to sin” (Sir 15:20). Why not? Does that mean there is something God lacks the power to do? No, the consistency of the Law is rooted in God’s loving wisdom, his exhaustive knowledge not only of how the world works, but what it is like to be you or me at every moment of our lives.

In the second reading, St. Paul adds two important theological observations to Sirach’s linkage of divine law and wisdom. First, Paul presses home the point that God’s wisdom is not the same as “worldly” wisdom, the wisdom claimed by “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:6). The cross stands as the ultimate demonstration of the incompatibility of “worldly wisdom” with God’s wisdom. If those in power knew God’s wisdom, says Paul, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). If God’s law is an expression of God’s wisdom, then this antinomy between God’s wisdom and worldly wisdom implies a similar divergence between divine law and human law. St. Paul would be the last person to make this divergence an absolute opposition, as he clearly exhorts his fellow believers to obey civil authorities whenever and wherever possible. Yet it is vital for followers of Jesus to remain aware that God’s law does not straightforwardly underwrite the law of Caesar; the two proceed from distinct forms of wisdom, which in this age can be and often are profoundly at odds. The second important point Paul makes is that God’s wisdom is not transparent to us. “we speak God’s wisdom,” he says, “mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2:7, emphasis added). The unfolding of God’s wisdom is all too often surprising, unexpected, unanticipated according to our own modes of thought, but we should not be surprised by such surprise. After all, His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways (Is 55:8). St. Paul must have had Isaiah in mind, because he goes on to paraphrase a line from the prophet– “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” (1 Cor 2:9) – and then concludes that this unseen, unheard, inconceivable destiny has now been “revealed to us through Spirit” (1 Cor 2:10). Is Paul claiming that these inscrutable depths of God’s wisdom are now entirely transparent to us? Has he moved on from his first letter to the Corinthians, where he spoke of “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12)? Surely not. What has been clearly revealed to us is that the workings of God’s wisdom through human history is ultimately for our glory, our fulfillment and perfection in love. God’s design and guidance of humanity operates according to the logic of the love that God is, which is why it clashes so violently with the zero-sum “wisdom” of human power.

The conjunction of these two readings places God’s law within the context of divine wisdom and love, and in doing so sets the stage for Christ’s own treatment of the Mosaic Law in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s worth recalling the way in which Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, which was the gospel reading from two weeks ago: Jesus gathers his followers around him on a mountain, and then offers an encapsulation of his moral teaching not in the form of direct commandments – do this, don’t do that – but in descriptions of blessedness, of what true human happiness looks like in this life. The Beatitudes are notoriously resistant to legal or analytic formulation, particularly when one takes into account the almost paradoxical elaborations Jesus adds to each one. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Recall that many of these brief explanations are rendered in the present tense rather than the future; it is at least as plausible to read them as descriptions of what blessedness entails here and now as it is to read them as conditions for the fulfillment of future promises. Jesus moves on to describe what his followers are to be in the world: salt and light. Again he speaks in the present tense, which is perhaps more daring, given how much the disciples had to learn about what being this sort of presence in the world would entail. Yet the progression is meaningful and significant: Jesus first paints a portrait of true human fulfillment, and then spells out what living out this sort of happiness means for the wider world. Only then does Jesus address the relation of this moral vision to the commandments of the Law. Before doing so, Jesus places before his disciples a reality deeper than the Law: the backdrop, context, and ultimate purpose of the commandments, namely God’s desire for human happiness and the world’s flourishing. The overarching wisdom behind the Law is God’s abiding determination that his creation would embody the goodness he saw in it from the beginning. We do well to remember Isaiah and Paul at this point – our minds cannot imagine nor our hearts conceive what this goodness truly looks like. Our dreams pale in comparison with the happiness God ultimately wants for us and for the world.

In this light, it should come as little surprise that Jesus should be so insistent that he has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, since the fundamental purpose of the Law along was to make us happy, to give us life. This goal always had in mind a transformation that involves more than just external, observable, concrete acts. After all, happiness and fullness of life cannot simply be acted out according to a detailed list of choreographed “stage directions.” Changing conduct is an important first step, but until it becomes internalized it remains a kind of play-acting. Even the best actors never lose their sense that they aren’t truly the characters they portray.

Some associate this sort of internalization solely with New Testament morality, but it is present from the beginning of the Law, when the Lord himself spoke the “ten words” to the whole Israelite assembly at Sinai (Ex 20). When he says “you shall not covet,” he gives a command about an action that cannot be observed. More than simply prohibiting theft or adultery, the Lord takes aim at the internal acts of desire that give rise to theft and adultery. So Jesus is not doing anything new by extending the commandments regarding killing, adultery, and oath-taking to the internal attitudes and smallest of gestures that give rise to what threatens the relationships upon which our happiness depends. In insisting that the Mosaic commandments extend beyond the parameters set out by the original written code of Sinai, Jesus is doing more than prioritizing the “spirit” behind those commandments. He is setting them in their larger personal and interpersonal context. Behind every commandment are persons whose happiness, whose fullness of life is at stake. Behind the Law is the whole network of interpersonal relationships through which the world comes to image God’s own interpersonal communion.

In the end, then, to follow God’s law is to follow God’s wisdom for the world, which in the Incarnation comes to meaning following the Logos made flesh. Disciples of Jesus find the fulfillment of the Law in Christ himself, who provides for us the embodied point of reference for what true human blessedness looks like in the world. For Christians, the perfection of the Law is ultimately a person, in whose paths we are all called to walk, for in Jesus we find the perfection of everything that the Law was meant to provide for us: the way to heaven, the truth about the world, and life in its fullness.