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Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Two men named Jesus and the Law

SIRACH 15:15-20
MATTHEW 5:17-37

In the scripture texts selected by the church for our inspiration and instruction today, two men named Jesus will speak about the meaning and significance of law. A concept which has been so much in the forefront of public attention during the past several months, law and its practice have been variously assessed and appreciated throughout the course of human history. With tongue in cheek, James J. Roche (1847-1907) once wrote, “The net of the law is spread so wide; no sinner from its sweep may hide. Its meshes are so fine and strong, they take in every child of wrong. O wondrous web of mystery! Big fish alone escape from thee!” An equally acerbic contemporary of Roche, Anatole France (1844-1924), remarked in his work Crainquebille, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” More than two and one half millennia before Roche and France, a young Athenian legislator had another opinion about the law. In his comprehensive revision of the Greek legal code, Draco punished even the most trivial crimes with death; he was convinced that such harsh penalties were the only way to promote respect for the law and maintain order within society. His so-called Draconian laws were later repealed by Solon.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, law is defined as a discipline and a profession concerned with the customs, practices and rules of a community that are recognized as binding by the community. Codes of law, dating from as early as 2400 B.C.E. have been unearthed by archaeologists in the ancient city of Ebla (present day Tell Mardikh) in Syria. Perhaps the best known law code from the ancient world, and one which influenced the formulation of Hebrew legislation is that of Babylonia’s King Hammurabi in the mid-eighteenth century B.C.E. In the course of his 58-year reign, the king composed and collected a series of legal decisions (ca. 282 case laws) concerning family life, civil and criminal laws, the economy (tariffs, prices, trade), etc. Hammurabi ordered these laws to be inscribed on a diorite stela which was enshrined in the temple of Marduk. After the French Orientalist, Jean-Vincent Sheil discovered the stela at Susa in 1901, it was placed on permanent display in the Louvre museum in Paris. Although Hammurabi’s code was advanced far beyond tribal custom and recognized no blood feud, private retribution, or marriage by capture, the rationale for his laws and for most subsequent systems of law was simply to promote order and harmony within society while protecting the rights of its citizens. However, as is evident in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the notion of law is to be understood and applied differently.

For Israel, the Torah, which is translated not as law but as instruction or teaching, is regarded as the revealed will of a caring God, for the people with whom he chooses to be related by covenant. Not a “net” which snares simmers while allowing “big fish” to escape. . . not a blind and merciless leveler of rich and poor. . . not a harsh censure which metes out lethal punishment for venal infractions, the Torah is a kind instruction intended to promote the holiness and wholeness of each believer while binding him/her even more closely to God. Therefore to keep the Torah is to listen and to live by a loving word; keeping the Torah means that the concept of law, and all legal observances are raised to the level of religion, as an expression of faith and trust in God. It is this idea which pervades today’s messages from two men named Jesus and which distinguishes the Judaeo-Christian understanding of law from all others.

In the first reading, Jesus ben Sira points out that the people to whom God reveals his loving will are not coerced but are free, in their response to him. In the Matthean gospel, Jesus explains his role with regard to the Torah and calls his disciples to a radicalized internalization of the law which goes beyond the letter, to the very heart of and intention of it. Paul in his continuing counsel (1 Corinthians) calls believers to appreciate the wisdom of God’s saving plan for his people, a plan hidden for ages but now revealed by the Spirit.

SIRACH 15:15-20

An amusing anecdote relates the experience of a group of theologians who were debating predestination and free will’ Their arguing escalated to the point that the group divided into two factions. But one theologian was undecided as to which group he favored; finally he decided to side with those who believed in predestination. When he came to join them, they asked, “Who sent you here?” “Nobody”, he replied, “I came of my own free will!” “Free will?!” they shouted. “You belong with the other group.” When he turned and tried to join the proponents of free will, they inquired, “When did you decide to join us?” “I didn’t decide,” the theologian responded. “I was sent here!” At this, the group shut him out saying, “You can’t join us unless you choose to do so by your own free will.” In the end, the theologian was excluded from both groups. A similar debate concerning human free will forms the backdrop for today’s first reading from Jesus ben Sira.

As is attested throughout both testaments, the biblical authors, in general, did not distinguish between God’s active will (which aids and intends the well-being of all creatures) and his passive will (which knows all things and yet permits or allows the exercise of human freedom). Therefore, there are instances in scripture which seem to imply that God has predestined or willed a person to sin (Exodus 11:10; 2 Samuel 24:1) or that God has caused those political, economic, spiritual, or physical calamities which bring suffering to humankind. That Jesus ben Sira was aware of these ideas is attested earlier in his writings where he said, “Good and evil, life and death, poverty and riches are from the Lord” (11:14).

However, today’s pericope represents the clearest statement in all of the Hebrew scriptures concerning the God-given freedom of the human will and, as Reginald Fuller has pointed out, the text underscores the fact that “the author’s main thrust is to exonerate God from all responsibility for evil in the world” (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville: 1974). Indeed, the responsibility for “fire” (vs. 16) “death” (vs. 17) and “sin” (vs. 20) is placed directly at the feet of the human person who has used his/her freedom to so choose.

Recall the fact that the teaching and writings of Jesus ben Sira were directed toward second century B.C.E. diaspora Jews who were exposed to the pervasive influence of Hellenistic culture. Included in Greek thought was the notion that human beings existed as the helpless pawns of an olympiad of fickle gods who were as likely to bring evil and suffering as they were to effect any good in the world. Sirach reminded his contemporaries that, in contrast to the capricious deities of the Greeks, theirs was a God who was good and caring; it was he who had created, liberated and blessed them with the capacity to choose. He also reminded his readers that the law or commandments were to be heeded as instructions of a loving Father who sees all and understands every human deed.

Jesus ben Sira also assured his readers that the exercise of human freedom to make choices will necessarily issue forth in consequences that will affect the life of the believer as well as the lives of others. Today, those who tout their freedom of choice as a right which supersedes God’s instruction as well as the rights of others (including the unborn), would do well to remember the words of the ancient sage. . . if you choose, you can keep the commandments. . . before you are life and death, whichever you choose shall be given you.


Few things are as difficult as trying to impart instruction to someone who already knows everything. Paul had encountered this difficulty while he ministered in Corinth during his second missionary journey and, as this pericope indicates, he continued to experience resistance to his teaching after he left the city. Scholars have attributed the Corinthian opposition to Paul’s gospel either to a form of incipient gnosticism (which was fully developed only in the second century C.E.), or to a form of Hellenistic Jewish speculation which seemed to have originated with Philo of Alexandria and may have been introduced into Corinth by Apollo, also from Alexandria (Acts 18:24-19:1). As a result of these influences, some Christians in Corinth believed themselves to be possessed of a certain wisdom which made them spiritually mature and superior to others in the community. Moreover, they claimed to derive from this wisdom a freedom and a perfection which made it possible for them to live in a heavenly sphere with Christ, “the Lord of glory” (vs. 8), while ignoring practical realities such as lawful, ethical living, and denying certain historical dimensions of the faith such as the stark reality of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

In terms borrowed from their own philosophical jargon, Paul confronted the Corinthians with the truth that authentic wisdom is not an achievement of this age, or of the rulers of this age, but a revelation of God in the Spirit. While calling the Corinthians to be lovers (philo) of the true wisdom (sophia) which comes from God above, Paul would later remind the self-styled spiritually elite that they would not be fully mature until they began to live according to the promptings of the Spirit of God, rather than the flesh of their own self-importance. In order to mature and develop as Christians, believers would first have to be fed with milk (i.e. the basic message of the gospel, accepting both the cross and resurrection, and then progress to solid food, i.e. the difficult and daily challenge of learning to live the gospel (3:1-21).

With yet another term popular among the Greeks, Paul described the wisdom of God as a mystery (mysterion) which had been hidden for all ages and was finally made known, not because human speculation had pierced its depths, but because God had chosen to reveal it. . . and that mysterious wisdom is his plan for the salvation of all people through the cross of his Son.

As further affirmation of his teaching, Paul explained that the wisdom of God now revealed, had been foretold by the prophets. In verse nine, the apostle quoted Isaiah 64:3 with one significant difference. Whereas the prophet had described the deeds beyond human imagining (eye has not seen nor ear heard) which God has prepared for those who wait for him. Paul replaced wait for with love. As Paul Wrightman has explained, “The period of waiting for God is over; he has come to us in the person of Jesus, and now it is possible to love him” (Paul’s Early Letters, Alba House, New York_ 1983). Indeed, because of Christ and the Spirit, it is agape (love), and not gnosis (knowledge) which distinguishes and characterizes the truly wise and mature believer.

MATTHEW 5:17-37

Curtis Bok, the erstwhile judge turned author, wrote in one of his courtroom dramas about a plaintiff, who was a sculptor. Frustrated, the artist demanded of the judge, “Isn’t this a court of justice?.” “No”, replied the judge. “It is a court of law.” Justice is an ideal like truth or beauty. As you try to achieve beauty with your mallet and chisel, so law is our tool in the pursuit of justice.“ In this section of his presentation of the Great Sermon, Matthew presents Jesus as a great sculptor, retooling and redirecting the law so that its intended purpose might be achieved, viz. justice, or the establishment of a right relationship between God and the believer and among all who would claim membership in the kingdom.

While calling his disciples to a justice (or righteousness or holiness, vs. 20) which would exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who were recognized legal experts of their day, the Matthean Jesus also set forth his own position with regard to the law. As Hans Dieter Betz has explained, the opening verses of this pericope (vss 17-20) summarized the four hermeneutical principles which guided Jesus in his interpretation of the Torah, viz. (1) the text (vs. 18: the Torah, including every yodh (jot or smallest letter) and serif (tittle or little projections at the base of a letter); (2) the teacher (vs. 17: Jesus); (3) the teaching (vs. 19: Jesus’ interpretation of the law); and (4) the recipients of the teaching (vs. 20: members of kingdom). Said Betz, “The sermon does not provide legal requirements but educates disciples to recognize the demands of God and to do justice in their thought and conduct to the will of God.” (Essays on the Sermon on the Mountain, Fortress Press, Philadelphia: 1985).

By claiming that Jesus came to bring fulfillment (vs. 17), Matthew indicated that the law and prophets had served a preparatory role in salvation history, pointing ahead to him in whose life, death, and resurrection the new age had dawned. “With the passing away of the old age, in the coming of Jesus, the prophetic function of the law and the prophets has ceased. Jesus’ teachings and actions, which included his interpretation of the law (5:21-48), now provide the center and norms for Christian existence.” (“The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church and Morality in the First Gospel”, Theological Inquiries, Paulist Press, New York: 1979). In the so-called antitheses which follow (vss. 21-48), four of which comprise today’s gospel, the Matthean Jesus described the startling nature of his understanding and fulfillment of the law.

Each of the instructions, on murder (vss. 21-26), adultery (vss. 27-30), divorce (vss. 31-32), and oaths (vss. 33-37), sets forth the demands of that higher righteousness (justice or holiness) which is expected of Christian disciples. Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, agrees with Christian scholars Ulrich Luz and John P. Meier that these antitheses distinguish Jesus’ teachings from others in that they deepen, intensify and radicalize the commandments, directing attention beyond the letter to the ultimate intention of the law. Jesus broadened the prohibition against murder to include the anger from which murderous intentions arise; the sin of adultery was expanded to encompass the lust which spawns it. Permission for divorce and for oath-taking which had been permitted by recensions of the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 24:1; 23:21,22) were revoked in favor of the higher demands of the kingdom.

The law, as interpreted by Jesus, presumed the observance of the decalogue as a minimum requirement and challenged disciples to go far beyond the minimum to observe the more which was required for authentic holiness. Ben F. Meyer calls this more which was demanded of believers in Jesus as “the eschatological measure”. In Jesus, revelation reaches its “crowning completion, as intended by God and reserved for the climactic and definitive (messianic!) revelation to his people.” (Five Speeches that Changed the World, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville: 1994).

Today, we who celebrate his messianic presence among us are reminded of how much he has graced us and of the more to which we are called.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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