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RCIA – 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Human Freedom

February 13, 2011

The First Reading – Sirach 15:15-20

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him. Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing. The eyes of God are on those who fear him; he understands man’s every deed. No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.

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The Book of Sirach is part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The other Wisdom books are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, and The Wisdom of Solomon. These writings show how the wise person can live in harmony with God’s plan for the world. Sirach is one of the “extra” books in the Catholic Bible. It wasn’t accepted into the Jewish canon of scripture and thus, Protestantism considers it an apocryphal work. Catholics do regard it as inspired, sacred scripture; they always have. Early Christianity used Sirach extensively in the instruction of catechumens. Today’s excerpt stresses human freedom and our ability to choose between good and evil. The context is an exhortation to choose wisely by following God’s commandments, which connects the reading to today’s Gospel. (RCL)

Today’s first reading insists that following God’s commandments and trusting in him will lead to life. The choice between fire and water, between life and death, lies solely on the shoulders of each individual. (LTP)

By making it clear that the responsibility for our actions lies squarely on us, the author teaches that God cannot be blamed for the injustice and evil in the world. The immensity of his wisdom and power does not make him responsible for sin in the world. God does not cause sin or even permit evil to exist. (LTP)

This strong declaration about human free will is candid and forthright. Difficult life situations and losses may lead us to stray from using our free will to choose well, and may sometimes cause us to blame God for our suffering, even if momentarily. This reading can remind us that the God of immense wisdom graciously gives us the free will to make the choice for life in all the situations we face. (LTP)

Sirach also reminds us that we alone have the freedom to choose to do God’s will by respecting and honoring others as creations in God’s image. We have the option of bringing life and nourishing each other, or of destroying one another through words and acts that violate human dignity. The new morality that Jesus proclaims is not in terms of what is explicitly commanded or forbidden; rather, it requires radical respect for all members of the human family without exception. (JOF)

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The Second Reading – 1 Corinthians 2:6-10

Brothers and sisters: We speak a wisdom to those who are mature, not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for, if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: 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. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

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  • What do you understand by true wisdom?
  • How would you interpret the verse, “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.”?
  • What is the role of the Spirit in order to mature in wisdom?
  • How does keeping the commandments animate us with wisdom?
  • Think of a wise person you know. Describe this person, indicating some of the characteristics of wisdom, particularly as they relate to the reading from Sirach.
  • How does the law of love, offered by Jesus, transform us with the wisdom of God?
  • What are some ways to grow more spiritually mature?

When we think about a wise person , we are generally reminded of someone who is closer to the end of life than to the beginning; one who has lived long and experienced many joys and sorrows along the way. The wise person is not a walking encyclopedia, who can repeat page after page of mathematical formulas or who can recite dates of great events in history. Rather, the wise person is one who can take knowledge and apply it to the everyday events of life. This ability comes not from being a student of life’s processes, but from being in relationship with other people in the midst of God’s created world. Saint Paul describes a wise person as one who is spiritually mature; one who has learned to get in touch with God’s wisdom, which has been present in creation from all eternity, and to bring that wisdom to the reality of daily life. (JOF)

Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians picks up where last week’s left off. Paul has been contrasting the folly (i.e., the wisdom) of the cross with worldly wisdom, and admitting that what he preaches has none of the persuasive force of the polished Greek rhetoricians of his day. Rather, the power of Paul’s wisdom rests solely on its origin: the Spirit, through whom “God has revealed this wisdom to us.” Paul is not hesitant to point out that the wisdom which the Christian receives from the Spirit surpasses that of “the rulers of this age” who are “headed for destruction.” He is here cleverly laying the groundwork for his attempt to correct the errors of certain members of the Corinthian church. They were caught up in self-importance over their gnostic fascination with the hidden mysteries to which they believed themselves privy and had forgotten the basic law of Christian love. (RCL)

The First Reading from Sirach tells us that God’s wisdom is immense. Paul adds to the understanding of divine wisdom by contrasting it with earthly wisdom. He is thinking of the Greek philosophers of his time, but this earthly wisdom could include any worldly knowledge of any historical time. Paul speaks of divine wisdom, which is mysterious and hidden. This wisdom God has known since before the beginning of time, i.e., the beginning of the world. “The rulers of this age” (perhaps a reference to Pilate or Herod or both) did not know this wisdom, for if they had, Jesus’ Crucifixion would not have happened. (LTP)

The underlined passage above in 1 Corinthians refers to a passage from the Book of Isaiah. Paul uses this citation to show the Corinthians and us that God’s wisdom has been made known through the Spirit. To those who are receptive, the Holy Spirit will reveal the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. In last Sunday’s reading, Paul said that he did not come with wisdom, but he knew only Jesus Christ crucified. For Paul, this is the divine wisdom and power of God on which our faith rests. (LTP)

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Responsorial Psalm                                                                                                        Psalm 119

R. (1b) Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees, who seek him with all their heart.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways of keeping your statutes!
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Be good to your servant, that I may live and keep your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Instruct me, O LORD, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

Psalm 119 is the longest and most complex of the three major psalms that celebrate the place of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the life of Israel (see also Psalms 1 and 19). After the reading from Sirach has urged us to choose rightly, Psalm 119 highlights the blessings that come upon us when we do so (“Happy/Blessed are they…”). The verses selected show how the Torah was considered to be a precious gift of the Lord, a sure guide pointing the way to happiness by living in accord with God’s plan. (RCL)

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Prayer: O Source of Wisdom, open us to your life. Give us eyes to see your ways. Help us to know and trust in your gifts that far surpass the gifts this world offers. Give us hearts that delight in your laws and your commands. Open us to hear your word to us now. We ask this through Jesus, who taught us your ways. Amen.

The Gospel according to Matthew 5:17-37

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. 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. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa’ (Aramaic for imbecile or idiot), will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, 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 to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. 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 to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.  But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife – unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

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  • What are some words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the word “commandment”?

For the Israelites, keeping God’s law was a way of life that indicated they were indeed God’s people. Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is a continuation of Jesus’ teachings to his disciples. The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time would have known the Jewish law very well. In fact, they scrupulously observed its prescriptions. Jesus shocked the disciples by stating that their holiness had to surpass this way of living by the prescriptions of the law. Jesus brought the keeping of the law to a new dimension as each time he used the phrases, “You have heard it said… What I say to you is…” In every case what Jesus asks of his followers requires an extraordinary interior conversion of heart. The use of hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration) here is integral to understanding the rhetoric of Jesus’ message, and we must be careful not to interpret his injunctions literally (i.e., don’t tear out your eye).The message of this gospel is that Jesus deliberately pushes his hearers beyond mere observance of the law to a way of following the commandments that springs from a radical love of God and neighbor. (RCL)

  • Which of Jesus’ statements most surprises you?
  • Which of His statements seem the most demanding of you?
  • How is the law changed by love?

This Sunday and next, the Gospel is Jesus’ teaching to his disciples on what exactly it means for them to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, as we heard last Sunday. They are to flavor the world and shine for others by conducting themselves in a manner that distinguishes them from the scribes and the Pharisees. (LTP)

The Gospel begins with a general statement that expresses how Jesus has come, not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Used in this context, “fulfill” means to complete. Jesus’ teaching not only completes the law, but in him – in his very person, message, and mission – he completes and perfects the law. (LTP)

After the general statement, four examples are given. Each begins with a statement of the Jewish law, which is follow by the words “But I say to you,” which introduce Jesus’ own teaching. The first example addresses the prohibition of murder (Exodus 21:12). Jesus’ response broadens the law to address anger. Anger, including denigrating others by calling them names such as raqa (idiot), can cause harm to others. Jesus calls for reconciliation and the working out of differences before the anger leads one to the court of law or even to Gehenna. (LTP)

The second example begins with the statement of the law prohibiting adultery from Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18. Jesus’ teaching recognizes that adultery is a sin of the heart; a person uses his free will to decide in his heart to act in an adulterous way. (LTP)

The example of adultery is followed by one on divorce (Deuteronomy 2:1-5). The exceptive clause Matthew includes in Jesus’ response has been the subject of much debate. Yet it seems to be the presupposition of the Old Testament law of divorce that Jesus denies. The Old Testament commandment which says that a man can give a woman a bill of divorce appears to legitimize divorce as an option. The ideal of marriage, the permanence of the covenantal bond of personal love, he upholds. (LTP)

The fourth example addresses the taking of oaths (see Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11; Leviticus 19:12). While the Jewish law prohibits false oaths, Jesus is uncomplicated and straightforward, forbidding any swearing of oaths at all. Jesus concludes by exhorting his disciples to say “yes” and “no” and follow through on what they say. (LTP)

In essence, Jesus calls his disciples, and us today, to speak the truth about Jesus – the unity of his person, message and mission. Following these examples, we too can be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (LTP)

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Catholic Teaching

  • What is Jesus’ message to you as you reflect upon your life and the law of love?

Human freedom and Christ’s law of love:

  • Humans are born with free will, the ability to choose right or wrong. Free will is the mechanism by which we grow and mature in truth and goodness, for when free will is focused on and disciplined for the kingdom of God (as opposed to being totally spontaneous and absolutely self-centered) it achieves a blessedness of life and holiness. (RCL)
  • Jesus Christ is the sign of this holiness in that he exercised his own freedom in complete obedience to the will of his heavenly Father. Jesus reveals the mystery of God’s love for us and how we might respond to that loving kindness of the Most High. (RCL)
  • Christian believers can fail to live up to God’s Law through legalism, observing the letter of the Law to the detriment of the Spirit of the Law, or, on the other hand, by overemphasizing the Spirit of the Law to the exclusion of carrying out its specific aims. (RCL)
  • Christians fulfill the commandment of love not merely because it is a duty, but as a response to God’s love. (RCL)
  • Christians desire to live in faithfulness to their relationship to God in Christ. (RCL)

God gave us free will, but we must take into account the record of salvation history (our interactions with God’s plan for our salvation). For, without a doubt, we were created by God with freedom to do as we wished. And we failed. Adam and Eve are the scriptural symbols expressive of our failure to attune our free will to the design of God. Human history is replete with examples of individuals and groups who chose evil and evil-doing again and again, which has led to all sorts of diabolical and wretched situations and outcomes. This is why the Second Vatican Council began its discussion on human freedom saying, “The people of our time prize freedom very highly and strive eagerly for it. In this they are right. Yet they often cherish it improperly, as if it gave them leave to do anything they like, even when it is evil. But that which is truly freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God in humanity” (GS 17). (RCL)

The law of love proclaimed by Christ cannot only be spoken of, but must be preached in detail. By baptism and incorporation into the people of God, and throughout a lifetime of religious formation, the new commandment of love is etched upon our hearts as believers partake on the living tradition of discipleship. (RCL)

The Catholic Church teaches that faith and good works go hand in hand. It is not enough to talk about the particulars of the law of love or the commandments of Christ as given in the Gospels. Nor is it enough to claim that one possesses the Spirit. In freedom, the believer chooses actions (or non-actions) in the concrete situations of life which live up to and embody the law of love given to us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (RCL)

In fulfilling the law of love, the central focus becomes the person: in Old Testament times, God the Father, and in New Testament times (including our own), Jesus, the only Son of God. And in our own persons we participate, then, in this central focus. (RCL) As Catholics we strive toward this law of love by internalizing and showing integrity, justice, community and transcendence; we live our lives as best we can doing all things in Christ.

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Reflection Exercise

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Think of the vertical lines as a continuum, with the left side signifying disobeying God’s laws, the middle signifying obeying God’s laws out of duty, and the right side signifying responding to God’s ways out of love. Where do you put yourself on this line? Give some concrete examples of how you have changed in the past year. What is different in the experience of responding out of love rather than out of duty? (RCL)

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Catholic Culture

St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was born in London, educated at Oxford, eventually earning his law degree, and was elected to Parliament. In 1529 King Henry VIII named him Lord Chancellor of England. Three years later, he resigned his position because of his opposition to the king’s divorce. Refusing to take the Oath of Succession, he was sent to the Tower of London and was tried. He made good use of his legal abilities, defending himself, hewing a fine line between respect for the office of the king and yet never budging in defending the faith and the position of the pope in the matter of the divorce of King Henry’s wife. More was deeply spiritual and is an exemplar of the believer who lives the law of Christ’s love with introspection, wit, and decisive choice of action – no matter the consequences. In July 1535, he was beheaded. (RCL)

St. Thomas More is the patron saint of lawyers. (RCL)

The stage play and the movie A Man for All Seasons details the last years of St. Thomas More, his unflinching conviction to live up to his faith in the face of the king’s wrath and his eventual martyrdom. (RCL)

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Putting Faith into Practice

There is a great difference between keeping laws merely out of a sense of duty, and keeping the commandment because we love God and our brothers and sisters. Our attitude makes all the difference in the interior spirit that leads us to true holiness. The wise person is constantly aware that he or she must examine interior motives for choosing and acting on the laws of God and the Church. The law of love is an attitude that permeates our whole self. The law of love is a response of the heart to God and God’s people. (RCL)

  • How can we further live out the law of love?
  • Decide on one way that you will commit to doing this during the coming week.

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Recall your resolve to respond to God’s call to love. Place your hand over your heart, and sense that this law of God and the desire to respond out of love is in your heart.

Closing Prayer: God our Father, you have promised to remain for ever with those who do what is just and right. Help us to live in your presence. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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RCL – RCL Benziger

LTP – Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word 2011

JOF – The Word into Life – Year A

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