The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 12 February 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Saint Matthew 5:21-37

Background: The Words

The injunctions that are preserved for us in Exodus 20:1-17 and in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, are not necessarily ten in number (they can be parsed in a variety of ways) but they are concise and brief, and easily remembered. Some scholars have seen them as being much shorter in their original version, with material of an explanatory nature being added at a later date. The Hebrew is very condensed, with some of the words (6, 7, and 8) being composed of only two words or three syllables. Since this is in some sense legal language describing the “contract” between YHWH and the people, it would have been incised into stone, as would any document of such importance. The expansion of the words with explanatory phrases was accomplished, perhaps, when the words were consigned to the medium of parchment/papyrus and ink. The influence of Hittite and Mesopotamian codes can be seen as an influence here, but the theology of the initials words is distinctly Jewish.  The verbiage used to describe the words has been varied: commandments, words, sayings, matters, and verses. The designation as “commandment” was first seen in the Geneva Bible (1560). Another form of the injunctions can be found in Exodus 34:1-28.

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

It might be helpful for you to read the previous two chapters before diving into the final choices that Moses enjoins upon the people. The pattern of blessings and curses is fully evident in all of these chapters, as the real meaning of the covenant is fleshed out for the people. In the previous chapters, Moses describes the blessings and curses with a certain specificity that gives us context to these final words in today’s reading. It is, in some respect, a homily on what had been described before with the general topic being “Choose Life”. Moses anticipates Paul in his contrast of life and death, prosperity and adversity. These are the results of lives lived in reaction to the covenant, either accepting it (life and prosperity) or rejecting it (death and adversity). In a setting that we have witnessed in the readings from previous Sundays, Moses’ homily is stated as a courtroom speech with heaven and earth summoned to be witnesses to the divine transaction.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.          What agreements have you made with others during your life?
2.          What is your operating agreement with God?
3.         How are you keeping up with its provisions?


Sirach 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.

Ben Sira discusses the notions of free will and God’s justice. He quickly introduces the notion of human responsibility in the face of sin with the words, “If you choose.” This notion of the choice between good and evil is common in early Jewish and Christian writing.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.     What does “free will” mean to you?
2.     In what ways have you sinned?
3.    What do you do with that sin?

Psalm 119:1-8 Beati immaculate

     Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the Lord!
2      Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!
3      Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.
4      You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.
5      Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!
6      Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.
7      I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.
8      I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.

The division of Psalm 119 is based on its twenty-two separate sections (of eight lines per section) each beginning with a succeeding letter of the alphabet. The topic of interest in the entirety of the psalm is the law of God and its relationship to humankind. This puts it in the realm of wisdom literature, but distinctively Jewish in character and theology. The purpose of the psalm was to providing instruction as to the nature of the law, and it probably dates from the post-exilic period (ca. 621 BCE) when there was great concern about the continuation the Judaism and the covenant with God. Given the subject matter we re not surprised to find numerous mentions of “teaching,” “ precept,” “decrees”, “utterance, “word”, “statute”, and “law.” There can be no mistaking the intent of the verses.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.     How do you deal with rules in life?
2.     Are there any rules that make you happy?
3.    How is your religious life rules?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 3:1-9

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.

Paul urges the members of the Corinthian congregation in their spiritual growth. Having found them as “infants in Christ” he fed them milk – the diet of the initiate. He realizes that they are still are in their infancy, for their behaviors betray a lack of maturity in the faith. He points to the divisions in their midst, “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos.” The real foundation in their growth, Paul points out, is God’s purpose and work. They are the field of endeavor, and the apostles are just workers in that same field. God is the one who provides for the growth.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. In way ways are you an infant in your faith?
  2. What does Paul mean by the term “solid food”?
  3. How mature are you in your faith?

The Gospel: St. 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 is the radical.  That is he gets to the root (radix) of things – here the Law. In this group of sayings, Jesus seems to review the law, in specific, some of the ten words or injunctions that we recognize in the commandments. His purpose seems to be not one of comfort but rather conviction – a realization that in spite of all good intents, most of us will have not kept the law. These reinterpretations and examinations are laced with a goodly level of pragmatism, “come to terms quickly with your accuser”, and authenticity, “anyone who divorces his wife…” They exempt no one from the examination, and no one is above reproach. These instructions are part of a series that follow the beatitudes and the sayings about salt and light. If having walked through the ethical considerations of the beatitudes with Jesus, we feel that a righteous life is indeed possible, then these teachings set us straight. For the way is difficult – it will require Christ’s presence in our midst. “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the root of your life in Christ?
2.     How do you try to meet the letter of the law?
3.    What do you do when you fail?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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