The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 February 2020

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

Background: The Ten Words and the Hittite Treaty

Several biblical commentators have begun to note the dependence of the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words on the provisions in Hittite treaties. The cultural and political understanding of such treaties was that there was a suzerain (the king, or in the commandments YHWH) and the vassal (vassal kings or dependencies, or in the commandments, the people of Israel). The treaty usually began with a recital of the suzerain’s beneficent acts toward the vassal. In Exodus 20, we see a similar recital that reminds Israel of their being led out of the slavery of Egypt. What followed, then was a series of obligations that the vassal owed the suzerain, “You shall have no other gods”, etc. This resembles the Hittite concern about have relationships with kings, powers, and peoples beyond the relationship with the suzerain. Others have seen the “no other gods before me, as a tacit recognition of the polytheism that marked the dominant culture of the time. Some have seen the Ten Words as a description of the suzerain’s (God’s) power. The remaining words, however, are not so much political as they are indications as to how society is to operate. 

The 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.”

We are invited to a drama here, or at least to a reenactment that strove to remind the people of a later time of the power and drama of Sinai. It is persuasive speech that hopes that the people will align with the ancient virtues and morals. If the initial provisions of the Ten Words (see the Background above) is one of aligning oneself with the suzerain, God, then this speech on Moses’ part seems to underscore the necessity of that provision as fundamental to the Israelites in their covenanted relationship not only with God but with one another as well. When Moses sets before them “life and prosperity, death and adversity” he alludes to the blessings and curses that accompanied any treaty or covenant. Indeed later on in the speech he does speak of the blessings and curses that are set before the people. It is a choice that each individual has to make. In a sense we are present at a trial, or at least all the elements of a trial are prepared and introduced to us, especially the witnesses, the heavens and the earth. They will be seen over and over again in this book. The covenant is fundamental.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.            What choices do you have in your life?
2.            What choices do you have in your faith?
3.            If you choose life, what does that mean?


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.

If the reading from Deuteronomy, above, teeters between blessings and curses, this reading from Ecclesiasticus teeters between an inclination for good and an inclination for evil. It is a similar theme. For Ben Sira it is a matter of choice, similar to the choice that Moses describes in the alternate first reading. The contrasts in this reading are interesting: fire and water, life and death, righteousness and wickedness. God is seen here, as a divine overseer, observing the choices that each individual makes. You are permitted anything, but you are not permitted to be wicked.

Breaking open Sirach:
1.            What choices do you have in your life?
2.            What choices do you have in your faith?
3.            If you choose life, what does that mean?

Psalm 119:1-8 Beati immaculate

     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.

One of the features of the post-exilic period was its attempt to reacquaint people with the faith and practices of their fathers and mothers – the ancient faith. This psalm most likely dates from that period, around 621 BCE. It attempts to describe the life of the righteous, those who follow the ancient teachings, those who “walk in the law of the Lord.” It is a wisdom psalm that aspires to teach us. We observe and are invited to follow the Torah (the teaching) along with the law, decrees, commandments, ways, statutes, words, and judgments. Verses 5 through 8 might well be put on the lips of Moses’ hearers in the first reading, their response to his invitation to choose the Lord.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.        What did your parents teach you about religion?
2.        What were their values like?
3.        Do your values differ?

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.

Leaving behind his arguments regarding the spirit of the world, the Spirit of Wisdom, given of God, Paul now concerns himself with the descension that seems to divide the congregation at Corinth. He marks how they are immature in their faith – “I fed you with milk, not solid food.” He finds them still immature, and of the flesh. The signs that he sees are their “jealousy and quarreling.” It’s not a difficult thing for us to apprehend, for we have seen the same factionalism, and favoritism in our own congregations and churches. There seems to have been a cult of personality, that Paul then speaks against, reminding them that God is the builder, the planter, the provider of growth. Their role is on of working together, with God, in God’s field.

Breaking open I Corinthians::
  1. In what ways are you an infant in your faith?
  2. Are you ever an adult? How?
  3. How do you grow and mature 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.”

Just prior to this instruction Jesus notes that his teaching does not demolish the Law, and in our reading, he gives examples of the fulfilling of the law. First there is an exposition on the commandment about killing – and Jesus expands it so that we understand that even language that derides our neighbor is murderous – a lesson for our time. 

Then there is teaching on marriage and divorce. This is a hard teaching in our time, and there is a great deal of descension on its meaning for us. The teaching is clearly pointed at men, and seeks to honor the place of a woman. Again, Jesus moves beyond a common understanding of divorce law and moves it to the realities that this has for both men and women.

Finally, in our reading Jesus teaches about making oaths. This is a conversation that might have a great deal of meaning for people in our time. What does it mean to make an oath or vow? Jesus implores us to make our words, our words – not the word of a thing, a symbol, an institution, or a government. Be plain in your speech, and plan to follow through with what you say. This is a word to the wise for those who swear oaths.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        What are your thoughts on each of these examples?
2.        Which one troubles you the most?
3.        Which one challenges you the most?

General idea:              Choosing Life

Example 1:                  Life in God’s Law (First Readings)

Example 2:                  A Life of Response to God’s Law (Psalm)

Example 3:                  Choosing to be and adult (Second Reading)

Example 4:                  Choosing to live beyond the Law (Gospel)

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 © 2020, Michael T. Hiller


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