CUTTING TO THE HEART – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A; Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

February 12, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34 (1b)
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:(17-19) 20-22a (22b-26) 27-28 (29-32) 33-34a (34b-36) 37

Today’s Gospel reading is unlikely to appear in anyone’s list of most cherished Scripture passages. This portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains some of his most difficult sayings. Far from valuing them, many Christians try mightily to explain them away.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses, instructing God’s people from the mountain. As he teaches the crowd, Jesus cites a number of well-known prescriptions, then adds, “but I say to you . . .” Although his teachings might sound like a repudiation of the Mosaic Law, Jesus tells his listeners, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). The Gospel writer presents Jesus as one who follows and respects the Torah, and more importantly, who teaches a message that is consistent with it.

The problem that Jesus identifies is the legalistic approach used at the time by teachers of the Law—the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). What is at stake in each of the individual teachings we hear today is right relationships, not the observance of a legal requirement. Jesus is summoning us not simply to keep a rule, but to embrace the spirit of the Law and to respond with integrity and wholeness.

In his teaching on adultery, Jesus takes aim at a patriarchal system that disadvantaged and victimized women. He challenges men—and he is speaking to men here—to treat women as persons rather than as objects. Similarly, when he goes beyond the prevailing legal requirement for divorce, he is also taking the side of women in a patriarchal society that gave men power to obtain an easy divorce while leaving women powerless. Jesus likewise speaks against taking oaths because truthfulness should characterize everything we say. In each instance, Jesus cuts to the heart of God’s Law, which is right relationships among people.

Perhaps more difficult than the words of Jesus on adultery, divorce, and oaths is his teaching on anger: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt 5:21-22).

Like the other teachings that we hear today, this one is aimed at transforming relationships among people. Jesus invites us to embrace the spirit behind the commandment against murder to understand God’s will that we never harm another—not by killing, not by angry outbursts, not by insults, not even by name calling.

Jesus goes one step further when he says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:24). Here Jesus cuts to the heart of authentic religion by setting right relationships on a higher plane even than worship.

As we consider this teaching about anger, it’s important to recall that Jesus experienced anger himself. He became angry during some verbal exchanges with his critics. His anger flared up when he witnessed money changing and commerce taking place inside the Temple walls. By connecting anger to insult and name calling, I believe Jesus is inviting us to express our anger in ways that will not tear down our relationships but rather in ways that address injustice while still allowing room for forgiveness and reconciliation. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed it this way: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no one can love one’s enemy.”

The section of the Gospel of Matthew we hear today may not be our favorite passage, and yet it cuts to the heart of Jesus’ message. We are called not simply to keep the rules, but rather to live and to act with respect for the dignity, equality, and well-being of every person, no matter how different or disagreeable.

A Hymn for Today: “Gentle God, When We Are Driven”

The teachings of Jesus that we hear in today’s Gospel reading lead just a few verses later to commands that we are to forego retaliation and even to love our enemies (Mt 5:38-48). New Zealander Shirley Erena Murray, FHS, reflected on these difficult teachings as she created this hymn and prayer. Listen here to a recording of Murray’s text set to a tune by Larry E. Johnson.

Gentle God, when we are driven
past the limits of our love,
when our hurt would have a weapon
and the hawk destroy the dove,
at the cost of seeming weak,
help us turn the other cheek.

Gentle Spirit, when our reason
clouds in anger, twists in fear,
when we strike instead of soothing,
when we bruise and sting and smear,
cool our burning, take our pain,
bring us to ourselves again.

In the mirror of earth’s madness
let us see our ravaged face,
in the turmoil of all people
let compassion find a place,
touch our hearts to make amends,
see our enemies as friends.

Let our strength be in forgiving
as forgiven we must be,
one to one in costly loving,
finding trust and growing free,
gentle God, be our release,
gentle Spirit, teach us peace.

Text: Shirley Erena Murray, 1931-2020. © 1992, Hope Publishing Co. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857

Image Credit: Chapel of the Reconciliation (interior detail), Berlin, 1999-2000

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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