INTERPRETATION OF THE LAW AND PROPHETS
HOMILY FOR SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A. Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 and Matthew 5:17-37.
I recall a court case of a woman who was accused of killing her husband, whose body was never found and she was sentenced. Years after serving her jail term, she found out the man was living with another woman. This time, she shot the man several times to make sure he is dead and she was re-arrested for the same murder case on the same person. In interpretation and application of the law, is she to serve a fresh murder case or to go free as she has already served the term for the crime? As we imagine the outcome of this court case, the liturgy of today presents to us a deeper interpretation of the Mosaic Law.
As regards the Law or commandment of God, the first reading from the Book of Sirach expresses the freedom and responsibility that comes with keeping the commandments. It says, “If you will, you can keep the commandments, they will save you…” (Sirach 15:15). ‘If’ is a conditional word which gives room for freedom to make choices. What is most important is the responsibility that comes with it. The reading went further to say, “God has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hands for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, good and evil, and whichever he chooses shall be given to him” (vv.16-17). As the psalmist tells us, those who chooses life walk in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 119:1). They have the fear of God and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, and it says: “For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything” (v.18). In view of this, the book of Sirach, otherwise known as Ecclesiasticus is one of the wisdom literatures.
St. Paul in the second reading tells us, “Among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification” (1 Cor. 2:6-7). Even if Paul does not proclaim what the world would understand as wisdom, he does proclaim God’s wisdom. Earlier, he spoke of “the wisdom of God” as “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:21-24). God’s wisdom is hidden wisdom in a mystery, in the sense that it is something kept secret for a time and then revealed to those who come to God in faith (Rom 16:25). It is on this note that Christ unveils the wisdom embedded in the Law and the Prophets.
The wisdom of God helps us to understand the precepts or commandments of the Lord better as Christ clarifies in the gospel periscope of today. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). The law was the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophets were people chosen by God to speak for him, to deliver his words of judgments and grace. The law and the prophets together symbolized the whole will of God. They were intended to guide the people faithfully so that they could live within the will of God and enjoy God’s blessings.
In Jesus’ days, Jews were subject not just to the law of the Torah but also to the Mishnah (commentary on the Torah) and the Talmud (commentary on the Mishnah). These commentaries comprised thousands of rules defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior under the Torah. Jesus respected the law but had little tolerance for the thousands of rules generated by the Scribes. That was the source of much of the conflict between him and the Scribes and Pharisees. Reconciling the words of Jesus that ‘He has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them’ means he is bringing out the real meaning of the Law, which has its root in love for God and love for neighbor. Christ wants us to have a better understanding, interpretation and application of the law. This is what St. Paul in the second reading considers as “hidden wisdom in a mystery.”
Interestingly he said, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of this commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v.19). Christ did not offer us option of championing a particular commandment and ignoring others. If he is to be the Lord of our lives, we must guide our lives by the totality of his teachings and our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees who pride themselves on the ability to interpret and keep the law in all its details. They seek glory that belongs to God; honour God with their lips, but in their hearts, they are far from him (Mt 15:8). The greatest of their failure, however, is their spiritual pride. Hence, for our righteousness to exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, Christ outlined the laws one after another and gave a deeper meaning to it. He takes the teaching about anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation and love to new realms.
In quoting the law he said, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills is liable to judgments.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (vv. 21-22). He raises the old commandment to a new level, telling his disciples not only to obey the commandment but also to exercise the feelings and attitudes that might otherwise lead them to violate the commandment. Anger makes us loose our peace and could consequently bring the thought of retaliation or revenge which may eventually lead to murder and the best remedy to anger is forgiveness. In the case of adultery, is to avoid entertaining lustful thought. There is need for formations of the mind to enable us overcome sin.
A preacher once said, ‘it is sad that nudity and seductive dressing are everywhere in the society, and it affects so many that wants to live a righteous life. The major problem is seeing these things in the church and the continuous struggle with lustful thinking during mass or service. Do not be the cause of distraction for someone to fight with his flesh in church.’ Invariably, Christ brings us into compliance, not with the letter of the law, but with the will of God that inspires the law. That is, the spirit of the law. He raised the standard on the observation of the law that we have no option than to depend on the grace of God.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ