6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Sirach 15:15-20 1st Corinthians 2:6-10 Matthew 5:17-37
In the “big picture” of our modern universe wisdom seems a relative endeavor. For example it is “wise” for us to refrain from cutting on the human body with a knife. However, in the hands of a skillful and competent surgeon, a scalpel is a constructive tool used in the healing arts of modern medicine. Wisdom helps us distinguish the unqualified knife-wielder from the competent surgeon. Today’s texts are about wisdom in ways both simple and complex.
Sirach is a summary of early 2nd Century BC Jewish wisdom which was competing with an abundance of Greek wisdom in that era. Wisdom ought not be confused or equated simplistically with merely being smart or clever. Wisdom requires engagement of a well-developed mind, it requires the ability to analyze, to associate, to use metaphor, to compare and contrast, to appreciate relativity, and to work from both the particular situation and from the bigger picture, all at the same time. Narrow ideology or single-issue over-focus is often unwise . . . and destructive. Sirach’s engaging exhortation of early 2nd Century BC Jews that they proactively engage life with God’s sacred “commandments” was healthy and good advice. The commandments fit the circumstances of the day. They were very appropriate for the Jewish world-view which had much in common with the world-view on which Greek philosophical wisdom was founded. This text placed tremendous responsibility upon the individual believer to engage in mature and adult ways. List the principal verbs aimed by Sirach at the hearer: choose, trust, and choose (again). Sirach had great confidence that the upright believer, the one who loved and appreciated the God of Israel, that he would, must, and would engage life effectively and well. Sirach’s God understood “man’s every deed.” In other words, this God of Israel was not out to measure human creatures in order to trap them in sin. No, God Sirach appreciated that God sought to engage and understand people much as people ought to engage and understand God and the Divine Will. This exhortation on Wisdom was a somewhat poetic and metaphorical exposition on genuine, faith-filled love between the divine and the human. These words can be appreciated as a sort of constitutional profession of what it means to believe in the God who Saves and who in only a couple of centuries hence was to send the ultimate Savior. That ultimate Savior would be the personification of God and Wisdom in true human form, Jesus the Christ.
In Paul’s lesson today, he further exhorted his Corinthians to engage Wisdom. He was profoundly irritated at their factionalism and selfishness. He appealed to God’s Wisdom which was essentially the working of the Divine Holy Spirit. He urged and demanded that self-critique be engaged regularly by his congregation. Indeed, this ought to remind us of that most practical principal of the Gospel message: Culture incarnates the Gospel and the Gospel critiques the Culture. Paul’s preaching, along with others, had (to use his metaphors) planted, watered and brought to harvest the Gospel message among the Corinthians. Now, he insisted, that they engage that same dynamic Gospel message and continue to refine themselves. We can speculate that the Corinthians were in their day much like we are in our own: subject to temptations and laziness, to greed and selfishness, in personal terms. This nascent Gospel community was causing scandal among it’s own members. Paul hoped that by persuading the Corinthian Christians to pause and reflect regularly that they might reconnect with the Wisdom he had already preached and had already convoked upon them: God’s Holy Wisdom.
Today’s extensive Gospel text is best proclaimed fully, in it’s lengthy entirety. This rather lengthy monologue about the Law and commandments, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, being angry and rude toward one’s fellow believer, the necessity to reconcile before worshiping, the commentary on lust and adultery, the comically exaggerated proposed self-punishment for a lustful glance, a simple teaching on divorce and it’s consequence, and a comment on oath-taking and truth-telling – all this comprises a very short list of simplistic attention-getting remarks in the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps Jesus is aware of the necessity of any teacher or preacher to prod and provoke his audience out of the naturally occurring collective lethargy brought on by too many spoken words. After this extended pericope, people ought to be at least thinking, “what on earth is he talking about.” In modern conversation, people who jump from topic to topic as this text does are often judged to be mentally unbalanced or at least intellectually weak. In Jesus’ example, he seems to be using the method to incite his disciples to deeper consideration, to further reflection on each topic, but particularly on keeping God’s Law wisely! Wisdom does not allow for simplistic approaches to complex life. Single-issue approaches are self-destructive, advocate unintelligence, and are generally an enemy of Wisdom. They form ideologies and unreconcilable positions. Litmus test ideologies divide and destroy hatefully and thoughtlessly, and subvert nuance, goodness, justice and love. We live in an age where political and religious leaders and followers are ideological. They seem so frequently to pick and choose among their preferences as to be against the Gospel we preach. They seem not attentive to the “Spirit which is strong, loving and self-disciplined” (Paul to Timothy), but rather to be fearful, narrow-minded, cowardly, and stiff-necked in their failure to see the big picture of life and to appreciate the relative complexity of reality. Likely, they have absented themselves from real life situations and relationships of profound love and trust. God’s Law in Old Testament terms has been replaced by the dynamic Gospel message of the New Testament. The complexities of ancient life might sound simple when contrasted with the those of modern times. Modern circumstances require nuance if God’s Wisdom is to prevail. And, yes, since life is messy, there may well be no single approach or resolution to multiple similar situations and issues. But, each believer who is in possession of a well-formed intellect and conscience can be responsible for the conclusions he or she reaches. Wisdom allows this God of Wisdom and intelligence to understand each of us, and to love us fully, completely, madly anyway! Trust in God, embrace the dynamic Gospel message (not merely a silly, shallow, and superstitious formal equivalent!), and live in full confidence of God’s Wisdom! God’s Word is active and alive, sharper than any two-edged sword! Be sharp!