For Feb. 16, 2014: 6 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

The book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach was probably written in the second century BC, by a Hellenistic Jewish scribe who wrote not just for Jews but also for Greeks seeking answers about life and faith and God. Though this is one of the Apocrypha—the books outside the Hebrew Bible, the Torah—we in the Anglican Communion believe it to be well worth studying.

The Response                                          Psalm 119:1-8

We begin reading from Psalm 119, the longest psalm of the Bible with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza could have inspired the reading from Ecclesiasticus, with its praise of the consequences of choosing to follow God’s law.

The Epistle                                                               1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The writer of Ecclesiasticus told us that it is up to us to choose to do what is right. The Epistle continues to point out ways in which the community at Corinth is falling short of what God wants: it matters much less who gets credit for this or that ministry than that the will of God for the growth and salvation of all of us be done.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount last week (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of Moses. Now he extends the law: to be his, it is not enough to refrain from killing, adultery, or swearing falsely. Whatever we do to treat others as inferiors or objects for our gratification is wrong.

 

Ponderables

As Epiphany season continues, its themes turn from the revelation of God entering our world to the revelation that the Kingdom of God is within us, messy humans that we are. Ecclesiasticus poses this in terms of a stark choice—fire or water, death or life—that does lies in our own hands, and the psalm praises the happiness of those who choose life through obedience to the Law. Paul takes a different tack to arrive at a similar destination: we cannot earn salvation through obeying the Law, but we do have choices in how we respond to the great gift of grace—and, tellingly, in how we extend grace to others.

As Jesus says, he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the gospel for 6 Epiphany he explains: the commandments prohibit murder, adultery, and other specific major offenses, but the point of them is for us to stand in love against anything or anyone that demeans or objectifies and estranges another human being. The prescription to cut off body parts sounds ghoulish to Western ears, but in Semitic society it was a very serious matter: one ate with one’s right hand only, so the effect of having that hand cut off was to disqualify one permanently from polite society. This difficult prescription is usually taken as hyperbole, but what if it is instead irony? What if we are the Kingdom of God, and we’re called to do our utmost to stand in love against alienation, both by those who estrange others—and by those who estrange themselves?

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