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Sunday Scripture: Called to be heroes

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February 11, 2011

By Thomas Callan

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

We enjoy reading books and seeing movies about heroic exploits, but most of our lives do not consist of such things. Our lives are made up of ordinary activities that do not seem at all heroic — cooking, cleaning, working at our jobs and taking care of our children. However, Jesus calls His followers to lives of heroic virtue. Following Jesus means trying to live in a way that often seems impossible.

The reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is another excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount. In this part of the sermon Jesus explains the relationship between the laws of the Old Testament and the rules that He lays down for those who follow Him. He begins with a general statement about this relationship, and then discusses six specific laws. Jesus’ discussion of four of these is found in today’s reading. His discussion of the last two forms the Gospel reading for next Sunday.

The main point Jesus makes in His general statement about the relationship between His teaching and the laws of the Old Testament, is that He has not come to abolish the law. He says that not even the smallest part of the law will be done away with until heaven and earth pass away. Therefore, the one who fulfills and teaches these commandments will be great in the kingdom of heaven.

The following discussion of six specific laws at first seems to contradict what Jesus has just said.  As He discusses each law, Jesus contrasts His teaching with the Old Testament law. However, on closer consideration, it is clear that Jesus’ teaching differs from that of the Old Testament only in a very restricted sense. What Jesus commands surpasses, but includes, what was commanded by the law.

For example, the first law that Jesus discusses is “You shall not kill.” Jesus replaces this law with a command not to become angry. If we consider that anger is a disposition that can lead to murder, it becomes clear that Jesus is not doing away with the law against murder. Jesus’ prohibition of anger presumes the prohibition of murder, but commands not only avoidance of the act of murder, but also of the disposition that might lead to murder. Jesus’ commands include all that was commanded by the Old Testament law, and ask for more. This is what Jesus means when He says that the righteousness of His followers must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. As followers of Jesus, we must do all that the scribes and Pharisees do, and more.

What Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount is so demanding that many have wondered if we can seriously expect to live this way. The reading from the Book of Sirach says, “If you choose you can keep the commandments.”  

Sirach is speaking about the commandments of the Old Testament. But when we take this reading together with the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, it seems to suggest that doing what Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount is possible.

The reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians continues his discussion of divisions in the Corinthian church and his argument that following Jesus is not a matter of the wisdom of the world. The way of life indicated in the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as an aspect of Christianity that is certainly not in accord with the wisdom of the world.

Callan is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

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