6th Ordinary Sunday (Year A)
irst Reading: Sirach 15:15-20 Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:17-37
“BLESSED ARE THEY WHO FOLLOW THE LAW OF THE LORD!”
A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor." the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail."
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
In this story we see how the mayor of New York City maintains & defends the laws under his jurisdiction, not by merely keeping them himself, but much more than that by showing respect, even to the accused and being compassionate to her and helping her out at the same time.
Today is the 6th Sunday in Ordinary time and through the Scripture Readings of today God calls us to a radical way of living. We are called to be more than just moral: God calls us to be virtuous. In today’s Gospel Reading St. Matthew emphasizes the close relationship between Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus. Here Jesus teaches with examples that he has not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to bring them to completion. In the First Reading Sirach affirms that God knows every human action. He the wise teacher urges his listeners to make the right choice in life. They have the commandments to guide them. In the Second Reading St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that God has many riches for those who love him and tells us that the rulers of this age failed to recognize God’s wisdom in Christ crucified. The wisdom, however, is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
“I HAVE NOT COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW BUT TO FULFILL”:
St. Matthew's gospel, from which today's passage comes, was written primarily for Jewish Christians and throughout his gospel, he constantly uses the Old Testament to show that the life of Jesus is not a breakaway from past Jewish traditions but that it is a continuation of all that was foretold by the prophecies of the Hebrew Testament. In today's Gospel he emphasizes the relation between Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus, where Jesus says, “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.” In the first sight, this may be astonishing, for often we find in the Gospels that the Pharisees and the Scribes accuse Jesus of breaking the laws, especially the Sabbath law. On the other hand, there is much in Jesus' teaching that is completely new, for, we find Jesus condemning their superficial religiosity and blaming them as being hypocrites. Even in today’s Gospel Reading, he warns his disciples – “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” How to explain this controversy?
Actually, the Jews used the expression ‘The Law’ in four different ways. They used it to mean –
- The Ten Commandments
- The Pentateuch (The Five Books of Moses)
- The whole Scripture (The Law and the Prophets)
- The Oral or the Scribal Law (Various Rules and Regulations)
In the time of Jesus, it was the last meaning which was the commonest; and in fact, it was this Scribal law which Jesus so utterly condemned, as they were superficial and un-necessarily overburdened the people. The Scribes were the men who worked out these rules and regulations and the Pharisees were the men who separated themselves from ordinary activities of life to keep them all. Actually, in Judaism, observance of the law was considered to be the standard of holiness. Thus the Scribes and the Pharisees considered themselves holy and righteous, but it was merely an external show; in fact, they were far from God.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel Reading speaks about the eternal character of the law and they are not the petty rules and regulations, but are great principles. When we look at the Ten Commandments – they are the essence and foundation of all law and their whole meaning can be summed up in one word ‘respect,’ or even better ‘reverence.’ Reverence for God and for the name of God, reverence for God’s day, respect for parents, respect for life, respect for property, respect for personality, respect for truth and another person’s good name, respect for oneself so that no wrong desires overpower us - these are the fundamental principles upon which the Ten Commandments are based - reverence for God and respect for our neighbors and for ourselves. Without them there can be no such thing as law and them Jesus came to fulfill. That reverence and that respect did not consist in obeying a multitude of petty rules and regulations. They consisted not in sacrifice, but in mercy; not in legalism but in love; not in prohibitions which demanded that men and women should not do things, but in the instruction to mold their lives on the positive commandment to love. The reverence and the respect which are the basis of the Ten Commandments have the eternal character and can never pass away – they are the permanent stuff of our relationship to God and to one another.
Again, in the Gospel Reading of today Jesus is explaining the law from this perspective when he gives the true meaning of sinful anger, lust and lying. He says -
“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.”
“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.”
The Scribes and the Pharisees kept the Law and the Commandments very carefully. But Jesus would say that though they observed the external requirements of the Law, they did not have the spirit which is the foundation of the Law: to love God and to love the neighbor as oneself. Jesus however, is interested in every line and looks into the interior of things; he looks all the way in to our hearts and he knows our deepest motivations and desires; he is the Wisdom of God.
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE GOD AND HIS COMMANDMENTS:
The First Reading of today from the Book of Sirach invites us to take every advantage to make the right choices in life. We have free will to do it. The reading begins with Sirach’s straight forward announcement that God’s commandments have the saving power and those who trust in the Lord shall live. Then Sirach shows our choices using terms that are polar opposites. We can choose fire and water, life and death, good or evil. But just so we see things in the proper perspective, he reminds us that God in His immense wisdom and great power has created everything with a certain pattern or organization to it. He further motivates us to make the right choice by stating that God’s eyes are on those who fear him. It is a strong image that reminds us that we cannot conceal our thoughts and actions from God. He adds emphatically that God does not command people to act unjustly or give them license to sin. But then that choice will be ours.
GOD'S WISDOM IS CENTERED ON CHRIST CRUCIFIED:
In today’s Second Reading from his 1st Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul continues his theme of wisdom and refers to the knowledge of understanding God’s wisdom, mysterious and hidden. He is profoundly irritated at their factionalism and selfishness and he appeals the Corinthians to engage God’s wisdom to remove them from their midst. God’s wisdom is centered on Christ crucified, the Lord of glory. This wisdom God has made known since before the beginning of time … God’s wisdom has been made known through the Spirit. To those who are receptive, the Holy Spirit will reveal the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. It will be a real surprise to learn what God has prepared for those who love Him.
In conclusion, all the three Scripture Readings today speak about true freedom and urge us to find true wisdom. We soon come to realize in this life that the free choices we have to make to become moral people are not always black and white, like the choices Sirach uses. Freedom is an eminently Christian virtue and value. But then, life and its choices are complex. To be wise means to choose carefully what choices we make, not through blind obedience, but through thought and prayer. With Christ, there is no new standard, but there is a higher standard that places Christianity heights above the world’s measures. It is definitely harder and not just higher, because many of us have not fully understood what true freedom entails. It requires so much more discipline and regularity and only then it becomes spontaneous in the sense that we spontaneously choose Christ anytime, anyplace over anything and everything else. The meaning of spontaneity is not wild abandonment. Instead, it is a freedom to spontaneously choose God above all else. “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!” And this is the Good News of today.