Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Cor 2: 6-10
Matthew 5: 17- 37

Our readings today face us with a timely call to welcome the law of God as a life-giving gift, as the site where we encounter the “wisdom… that God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” (1 Cor. 2: 10).

Talk about law and commandments can sound cold. A Jewish acquaintance of mine commented to me recently, though, that translating the Hebrew word mitzvah as “commandment” misses something of its significance. In English, “commandment” has a connotation of an order given from on high to a subject, something like a rule laid down by a superior. Do it or suffer the consequences! But in Judaism, she argued, mitzvot are responsibilities given to God’s people. The command comes because people have a role for the healing of creation, a call to be a light to the world. Obeying mitzvot is a privilege as well as a duty.

We can sense this in today’s psalm, which presents the law not as a burden but as a wonder. The full life of God’s people is the keeping it.

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. (Ps. 119: 17-18)

The law is a gift, but it is not easy. These scriptures bring us to a moment of truth.

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. (Sirach 15: 16-17)

Who will we be?

In today’s gospel, an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus the Jewish teacher speaking to his disciples and to the crowd about the law and the prophets, the scriptures this audience know. His approach to them is a variant of what the rabbis call “fencing the Torah,” making boundaries around the law so that people will not even set food on the path that leads to disobedience. Because the law forbids murder, God’s people must refrain from insulting speech and seek prompt reconciliation for having given offense. Because the law forbids adultery, God’s people must refrain from objectifying another person, even at the cost of sacrificing their own power (the metaphorical eye and the hand). Because the law forbids breaking an oath, God’s people must tell the truth consistently and directly and be ready to believe another to be doing the same.

Of course, there is no point avoiding insults while failing to oppose and offer redress for unjust killing! The history of Christianity, like the history of Israel, is full of failures to honor even these fundamentals. For Christians in the US, a serious accounting of our response to God’s law must recognize that Christians in the US objectified people, even other Christians, literally turning them into objects to be bought and sold, without regard even for marriage or family. US history begins in the use of violence and broken promises against natives of this place. Christians in the US have repeatedly invoked the name of God and even the image of the “light to the world” to assure themselves and others that those acts were not really unjust.

Recent efforts to repent of these sins and to make redress from the profits they generated, as by Georgetown University  (and related efforts in New York  and beyond) are at least steps toward seeking reconciliation, belatedly. A history of injustice has created present benefit for some and present loss for others, and the long path of reconciliation and creating a more just relationship begins, at least, with recognizing that truth.

But this, remember, is only the minimum. God’s people are not only to address those injustices but also to root out all that remains by filling our encounters with each other with faithfulness, honesty, and gentleness. These readings are not a call to “civility” but to end oppression, objectification, and manipulation, and to do so starting with ourselves.

The Good News

If the Sermon on the Mount were only a list of very difficult moral commands and promises of punishment, this would hardly be good news. But the law is a life-giving gift, a blessing. It is given to heal us, not to destroy us. What would it be like, if we truly reconciled with each other over any hurt before we made an offering before God? How would our parishes, our communities be different if we simply spoke yes and no, without equivocation? If we tended to our relationships with each other in such a way that we would limit our own power rather than turn someone else into an object of pleasure? These commandments invite us into a life better than we are able to imagine, most days.

More importantly, these stark words are spoken by the One who fulfills them: he gives his own flesh to honor humanity, to seek reconciliation even though none of the fault is his. He gives to us all that he asks of us. In fact, it is gratitude for God’s mercy that gives us the courage that speak truthfully even about how we have hurt each other. That rest is the source of the contentment that can resist using others for pleasure. That joy of knowing we are welcomed and loved is the source of patience with each other in our arguments.

Jesus calls us to be not servants but friends and even, by the grace of the incarnation, sharers in God’s own life. Clinging to her mercy, we can leave behind all that is defensive or grasping or fearful. The call to be his people is a wonder and a joy. As Bonhoeffer taught, it is both costly and completely free.

“Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!”