Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37
Our first reading today is from the Book of Sirach. It also has a Latin name: Ecclesiaticus. It was used from the third century on to instruct catechumens and neophytes, and perhaps it will now be of more interest to our catechumens and candidates after their dismissal in a few minutes. This book is one of several wisdom books that were part of the deuterocanon or second canon, which were excluded from the Protestant bible. That’s a shame because Sirach is a book of tremendous wisdom, much like Proverbs.
In this reading, Sirach alludes to Moses’ blessings and curses on Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim in Deuteronomy 30. In it, Moses recounts the 10 commandments and the Levitical law to the Hebrews and exhorts them to choose life—which in his time means to reject sin and ungodliness. Deuteronomy is the second pronouncement of the Law of Moses. Essentially, then, both Sirach and Deuteronomy are pointing back to the law that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Both books of scripture point the way to life. We should not be surprised that scripture has so many of these references back and forth. That is a sign of its inspiration: that these individual books could be written on their own and yet hang together so well.
Besides, the Word Himself is its origin, so having this internal coherence makes sense.
Our gospel reading is notable because of its extraordinary claim. Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law but fulfill it. What he meant was that He was not abrogating—or invalidating the law—but completing what the law intended. That is why the ritual law of the Jews passed away for Christians. The ritual law included circumcision, dietary and Sabbath restrictions, and the many sacrificial requirements that Jews had to perform regularly.
What Jesus doesn’t set aside is the moral law. In fact, he increases its demands on us. He says that to resort to angry speech against a neighbor is a form of murder: murder of reputation. He says that looking lustfully is a form of adultery: taking someone else’s spouse in your mind and objectifying them. We can pretend that we don’t understand what he’s saying in this passage, but we know exactly what he means. We’re all prone to such sins, and Jesus is calling us to something more—something better.
It’s rather common these days for people to lump the moral laws of the Old Testament in with the ritual laws of the Jewish people. Here’s how I commonly here the argument phrased:
Didn’t the Old Testament also condemn eating shellfish or eating dairy with meat? Should we be excommunicating people now for eating a cheeseburger or fried shrimp?
These statements are used to suggest that somehow Jesus didn’t himself believe in the moral law of the Torah or in any moral restrictions about sex outside of marriage, either heterosexual or homosexual, or any of the other moral laws that seem so old fashioned to us modern sophisticates. Surely, Jesus didn’t believe or preach any of that stuff. The moral law of the Church just sprang up because a bunch of angry old white men in Rome wanted to ruin everyone’s fun.
But right here, smack in the middle of the first gospel, is Jesus being all judgey and telling us not to sin, not to lust, not to commit adultery. And in the Jewish understanding, adultery was simply a category of sexual sin and covered numerous sins including all of our culture’s favorite vices. Jesus was a Jew, and he taught the moral law of the Jews. We don’t have to guess what He thought because he was a Jew and lived by and fulfilled the Law of Moses. This is evident enough because Paul, who wrote his epistles before the gospels were written, condemns very clearly many of the same acts that are condemned earlier in Leviticus. The Church Fathers from the Apostolic age on confirmed the same beliefs. But to us it’s somehow a mystery what Jesus taught regarding morality?
What would Jesus do?
He would tell us not to commit sin.
He did so right here in the “Sermon on the Mount.” He did so in the account in the Gospel of John with the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more.” He saves her from death, which is just what He does for us. He saves us and then sends us away to sin no more. He isn’t trying to ruin our fun, and neither is the Church when it warns us away from sin. Jesus and the Church warn us away from sin as good parents would warn their children away from poison. Jesus forgives us and leads us to repentance because we will otherwise die spiritually
“I set before you life and death. Therefore choose life.”
Moral instruction is not condemnation. Moral instruction is a fence to keep us from death. The moral law is a law of love and a law of life. The moral law is not just etiquette—not just a set of table manners that we use to get along with each other. The moral law has eternal implications—implications about the state of our souls.
Now how do we transmit this message? That’s really the question. Pope Francis, as did Benedict and Blessed John Paul before him, stresses the need for conveying the truth with love. We have to start with the most basic truth: God loves us. God doesn’t just love humanity. God loves you. God loves me. God loves us each individually. He loves us so much that he came down and did that for us [pointing at the crucifix]. The greatest sign of his love is that which we will shortly share together: His body and blood given to us in His memory.
Jesus comes to us in our brokenness and sin, puts His arm around us, and says, “I love you as you are, and I forgive you. But you can’t stay here or you will die.”
Admittedly, the basic gospel message gets drowned out if we begin by shouts of condemnation. We must preach the good news of the gospel before all else—that’s what the Greek word evangelion means, good news. Pope Benedict’s very first encyclical was titled, “God is Love.” Pope Francis has repeatedly noted the need to share God’s love first. God’s love and the grace of the Holy Spirit do the work of conversion. Only then can we see the fruits of the spirit at work. We need to make our Church a space where this kind of healing can take place. The Church is not a shrine reserved for the saintly or a country club for the biggest donors.
It’s a hospital for sinners,
a refuge for broken people,
for people like me, for people like you.