The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany - 13 February 2011

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Saint Matthew 5:21-37

Amen-em-ope, author of "Instruction"

BACKGROUND – Wisdom Literature
The origin of this type of writing, known throughout the Ancient Near East, most especially in Egypt, has been thought to be the royal court.  It was here that princes learned about kingship, or courtiers learned how to be of service to the king.  Whether through the sojourn of Israel in Egypt, or through Israel’s adoption of Egyptian kingship into its own government, the style and content of Israel’s sense of Wisdom made its way into the culture and finally into the scriptures.  Many scholars opine that to look to the courtly origin of Wisdom Literature is to not look back far enough.  Many feel that the true origin is the passing of “wisdom” from father to son, from mother to daughter.  In the royal courts a similar means of transmission would have developed, although on a much different plane.  What is unique to Israel, however, is that even with the devolution of the monarchy under Babylonian rule, and its elimination following the restoration under Cyrus, Wisdom Literature survives, and is translated from courtly wisdom to religious wisdom – to a transmission of wisdom in all classes of society.  Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures turns from the sage advice of wise ones to their disciples, to the sage religious advice of a society that wishes to pass on the wisdom of Yahweh.  The reading from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) for this morning makes this point quite well.

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows every human action.
He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
and he has not given anyone permission to sin.

Hebrew text from Sirach

Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach as it is also known) is the only book (with the exception of the last chapter) for which we have a signed author’s name: Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira.  Written between 195 and 168 BCE, the book most likely precedes the Maccabean revolt.  The book is an apology for Judaism, written in response to the raging Hellenism that was all about them, and that would soon whip up into a revolt by the Maccabees against their Syrian over lords.  The arguments in this reading concern the notion of free will and of sin.  Unlike Genesis, which accounts for the origin of sin amongst humankind, Sirach is interested in the individual, and how that individual makes choices.  He does not see God as the origin of evil, but rather as the God who uplifts the righteous man or woman, and keeps them from sin.  Sirach sees sin as the product of each individual’s free will.

Breaking open Ecclesiasticus:
  1. How do you exercise your free will?
  2. When choices appear to be at odds with your Christian values, how do you sort it out?
  3. How do you react when you are called, in the liturgy for example, a sinner?

Psalm 119:1-8 Beati immaculati

Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the LORD!

Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!

Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.

You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.

Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!

Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.

I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.

I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.

Quotation from Sirach on Old Saint Mary's San Francisco

Just as last Sunday, this psalm is also an acrostic, with each letter of the Hebrew Alphabet (22) beginning a series of eight verses.  This psalm is a “long acrostic”, comprised of some 176 lines of poetry.  It is also a “Wisdom psalm”, written for those who “walk in the law of the Lord.”  In the verses of the psalm we get the definite feel of wisdom being passed from the wise to the initiate.  The reading for this morning, however, is a hymn to the ultimate Teacher, to the One who lays down all good teaching.

Breaking open Psalm 119
1.     How is your journey in life “blameless”?
2.     How do the commandments, for instance, instruct you?
3.     How are you a student of faith?

I Corinthians 3:1-0

Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.

El Greco - Paul and Apollos

We continue our on-going reading from I Corinthians.  In last Sunday’s reading, Paul makes a distinction between those who are new (infants) in their faith, and those who are more mature.  Today we read what the consequences of that distinction are.  He calls the Corinthians “people of the flesh…infants” as opposed to “people of the spirit” who are mature in their faith.  Paul gives them infant food – milk, not the meat for which they are not yet ready.  Their fractiousness does not enhance the growth of the church, and Paul reminds them that both he and Apollos have separate roles, one planting and one developing that which has been planted.  To say that believers belong to one or the other is foolishness, for all belong to God.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Are their factions in your church?
  2. How do you bring people back together when they have been separated by emotion or opinion?
  3. Are you a milk or a meat Christian?

Saint Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

"It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes' or `No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Jesus as a Teacher - from a Roman tomb

Jesus continues to teach his disciples, lessons that follow from the Beatitudes proclaimed on the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus pushes his students to understand that their comfort and their familiarity with the Law are dangerous.  He pushes the understanding of these elements outside of their box of understanding.  Jesus comments on murder, adultery, marriage, and oaths.  In each example Jesus expands the understanding so that anyone can realize that they have not and cannot keep the law perfectly.  Murder is morphed into insults and anger, adultery into any uncleanness, oath making into any kind of exaggerated speech.  “Keep it simple” seems to be Jesus’ sage advice; let it be “yes” or “no”.  The Devil seems to be not in the details, but rather in the generalizations that we make.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Do you understand Jesus’ exaggeration of the Law?  Did Jimmy Carter?
  2. If there are factions in your congregation, in what ways can you be a peacemaker?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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