First Reading Commentary
The Latin Vulgate’s version of this Reading tells us that “God made man from the beginning and left him in the hand of his own counsel.” There’s an eerie tone in that translation which intimates how responsible we must be as individuals when exercising God’s gift of free will. The Latin Vulgate also reveals that the keeping of God’s Commandments is to “perform acceptable fidelity forever.”
We have been made executors of a great treasure – our own salvation. No other creature or any other form of creation on earth has been given such a gargantuan responsibility. We do, however, possess something that is perhaps an underestimated aid – the grace of God. Saint Augustine explains: “If we examine the context, it shows that man, in his present state, is declared inexcusable if he yields to sin, as he still has free will, which may avoid it, with the grace of God, which is always ready to support us.”
It has often been said that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI proposed – not imposed. We see in this Reading a proposal – not an imposition. The Holy Father, however, as Christ’s Vicar on earth, proposed to us what is best for our relationship with God. Through Sirach, God Himself in this Reading proposes what is most advantageous for our soul, regardless of how mysterious or incomprehensible it is. The Law of God has been written on stone tablets and on the tablets of human hearts: man has the free choice of whether or not to comply with it.
Second Reading Commentary
Saint John Chrysostom explains what Saint Paul means by ‘wisdom’: “By wisdom, here seems to be understood a more sublime doctrine concerning the most abstruse mysteries of faith, which the ignorant could not understand.” It was the Incarnation of the Son of God which revealed this mysterious wisdom, but a wisdom, nevertheless, that continues to remain hidden in many, even among those who are considered wise by human standards. This is why we year after year observe the Lord of glory continuing to be questioned and verbally crucified in various publications and documentaries, especially around the Lent and Easter season.
The Spirit of God is a Spirit of grace, knowledge and prophecy – a Spirit which God gives to His faithful, and most particularly to His apostles. This Spirit of God raises one to a higher knowledge of divine mysteries. Among the faithful of God, even if unable to recognize this mysterious knowledge of God within themselves, certainly have witnessed it in our modern day heroes like Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, Venerable Solanus Casey, and Saint John Paul II.
Many of the external practices or rituals of the old Law no longer come into play in Christianity, but Jesus is not talking about that. Our Lord is referring to the moral precepts, the spirit of the old Law which not only needs to be adhered to, but practiced with greater perfection: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Jesus is the Reality of all the figures of the Old Testament. He is the Perfection of all the imperfections of old, and calls us to this Perfection, which is Himself. The old Law was extremely protected by its doctors and our Lord’s raising of it to an elevated morality was, to say the least, radical and scandalous. But as Jesus tells us, this is not an abolishment, but a fulfillment. One might say that Jesus accomplishes the will of the Law. Saint John Chrysostom writes: “He [Jesus] fulfilled the Law by reducing all the precepts of the old Law to a more strict and powerful morality.” Our Savior often spoke the words: “Amen, I say to you. . .” That “Amen” is an assurance, a guarantee that what He is about to say is absolute truth.
Saint Augustine taught something that is somewhat taboo today basically because no one wants to consider such a possibility: he taught that what Jesus meant by “least in the Kingdom of heaven” is to not be in heaven at all. And thus, this is why Jesus said very clearly, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” In other words, if it is only the letter of the Law that is adhered to and not the spirit of the Law, then the only thing being satisfied or fulfilled is one’s own vanity.
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us: “See how necessary it is, not only to believe, but to keep all the Commandments, even the very least. Our Savior makes this solemn declaration at the opening of His mission, to show to what a height of perfection He calls us.”
The word “Raqa” is a word of contempt. It was used in ancient Israel. Its root meaning is “to spit”. Jesus uses the setting of a legal court and that setting is something that would have been very familiar to the hearers of His words in first-century Palestine. There were three kinds of tribunals: the first had three judges to try smaller cases, like theft, for example. The second kind of tribunal consisted of twenty-three judges who listened to criminal cases. These twenty-three judges had the power to condemn to death. This was known as the “Little Sanhedrin”. The final type of tribunal was known as the “Great Sanhedrin” which consisted of seventy-two judges who decided on cases involving religion, the king, the high priest, and affairs of the state.
While the words, “you fool” are insulting in our modern culture, at the time of Jesus they were considered very contemptuous, spiteful, malicious, and provoking words.
Gehenna was in the valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem. Worshippers of an idol named Moloch would go to Gehenna to sacrifice their own children by burning them. It is now symbolic of hell. Jesus does teach us in His examples that there are distinctions of sin – mortal and venial. According to Saints Cyprian and Ambrose as well as Origen, an early Church writer, on a spiritual realm, what Jesus means by “prison” is purgatory. And then, of course, Gehenna is hell, the place of eternal separation from God.
Jesus is not suggesting that all oaths are forbidden. Certainly asking God to witness matters in our legal system, for example, are necessary. Most likely what our Lord is referring to is the swearing to God in casual conversations. God’s Name is sacred and should only be spoken with great reverence and respect.
We have been called to a perfection that seems impossible by human standards – and without God, it is. But if we are to understand and adhere to the spirit of the Law, then we have to recognize that a key and essential ingredient in the spirit of the Law is mercy. Not only are we called to be merciful, but to trust in God’s love and mercy for us. This ingredient is so important, that our Redeemer made it a sacrament – and the sacraments can raise us to the heights of perfection.