Sunday, Feb. 16, is the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Liturgical Year A, Cycle II).
Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37 or 5:20-22, 27-28, 33-34, 37
People often say the Old Testament and St. Paul are harsh, but the New Testament and Jesus are mild and forgiving of sin.
Today’s readings prove otherwise.
In the first reading, the Old Testament uses a positive approach to promoting the Ten Commandments: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments; they will save you. If you trust in God, you too shall live."
In the Gospel, Jesus uses a different approach: "Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven."
The Old Testament Psalm offers kind, hope-filled words: "Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!"
But Jesus warns about how serious the law is: "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 to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna."
St. Paul tells of what we can expect if we follow the commandments: "What eye has not seen and ear has not heard and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit."
Jesus tells us what to expect if we don’t: "I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven."
Is Jesus being mean? Is he being too strict?
Not in the least. He is warning us of spiritual peril.
Of course, Jesus also spends time convincing people of the beauty of the moral way when he shares the beatitudes and elsewhere. But without the stern warnings, we might miss the urgency of his words.
And we really need to understand how urgent they are. That first reading has always been a favorite of April’s:
God "has set before you fire and water. To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand," it says. "Before man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given him."
God is radically pro-freedom. He does not force us to do anything. That is because without freedom there is no love, and God is love.
But God is also all good, and he cannot tolerate evil.
The two pillars of the Jewish faith were the Temple and the Law — the Temple and the Ten Commandments. Jesus replaces the Temple with his own body and invites us to become members of him. But he doesn’t replace the commandments. He emphasizes that they are a law of love — but that only makes them more strict. Because God is love, and Christ is God, and we are members of the body of Christ.
So pray this Sunday for the grace of being as serious about the commandments as Jesus is. It’s the loving thing to do.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.