This Sunday of Epiphany celebrates the transformative revelation of God to the people by means of Moses in the giving of the Torah. The capacity to choose the way of God reflects a wisdom that God offers for well-being and confidence. Paul insists that wisdom of this kind transcends mere human opinion or group loyalty. Today’s Gospel reading taken from the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew counsels an extra measure of wise caution in following the Torah’s guidance for life as God’s people.
The First Reading
God’s Call Presents an Urgent Choice
Near the close of God’s revelation from Mount Sinai, the author of the book of Deuteronomy reports that Moses summarized God’s call to Israel to live as God’s people. That call challenges them to embrace the life that will distinguish them and bring honor to God. By making that choice, Israel will gain a long and thriving life in the land God has promised to their ancestors. Rejecting the choice is characterized as a dire, deadly move. The urgency could not be more clear and the promise that accompanies a faithful response is rich and full.
See—I set before you today life and good, death and doom, by commanding you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to observe God’s commandments and statutes and ordinances. Then you will thrive and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to inherit. But if your heart turns aside and you do not obey, and you revolt and worship other gods and serve them, I tell you today that you will certainly perish. Your time will not be long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and to inherit. Today I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses in your case: life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. So choose life, so that you and your descendants may live. Loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and clinging to God—surely this is your life and longevity, dwelling on the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, giving it to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob.
or Sirach 15:15-20
The Wise Revere God and Choose Faithful Life
For Ben Sira and others in the wisdom tradition of biblical Israel, wisdom is a grace that comes to those who stand in awe of God. Thus the choice to do good or evil, to follow God’s commandments or not, rests with each person in their own good judgment. God neither leads people to sin nor rescues them from their own poor choices. What God desires has been made plain; the choice is up to us.
If you so decide, you will keep commandments, thus showing faith, to God’s pleasure. God has set before you fire and water; you decide the one toward which your hand will reach. Life and death stand before a person and, as one pleases, so it shall be granted. For wide-ranging is the wisdom of the Lord, powerful in majesty and seeing all, so that God’s eyes are on those who stand in awe of the Lord, even perceiving every one of a person’s works. God does not command any person to be blasphemous and gives no one permission to sin.
The Strength to Follow God’s Path
Recognizing the joy that comes from following God’s instruction, the psalmist prays for God’s help in ensuring constant observance of the law. These eight verses are part of a much longer alphabetical acrostic that focuses on the need to follow God’s instruction. The psalm presents groupings of eight verses, each of which begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Comprising the first unit of the psalm, each of the verses for today’s psalm reading begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph.
- 1. Happy are those whose path is irreproachable,
- who walk in the Lord’s instruction.
- 2. Happy are those who keep God’s proclamations:
- they seek God wholeheartedly!
- 3. They do no wrong;
- they walk in God’s ways.
- 4. You, God, commanded your precepts
- fully to be upheld.
- 5. May my ways be firmly established,
- to uphold your laws!
- 6. Then I will not be ashamed,
- focused on your commandments.
- 7. I praise you with an upright heart
- as I learn your just ordinances.
- 8. I shall uphold your laws—
- do not abandon me!
The Second Reading
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
The Problem of Factions
Writing to communities of believers in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth, Paul targets the emergence of factionalism among believers. This disaccord became apparent in conflicting groups that claimed loyalty to one teacher or another. Paul expresses impatience with all such partisan claims of superiority, even when people identified themselves with his position. Rather, he insists that the only true merit of any teacher is their ability to nurture growth whose actual source is God.
Family, I was not able to speak to you as people of spirit, but as people of flesh. As to babies in the Anointed, I gave you milk to drink, not food, because you were not ready. Neither are you ready now, because you are still of flesh. Where there is jealousy and contention, are you not of flesh, behaving as the merely human do? For if someone says, “I belong to Paul’s faction,” another, “I belong to Apollos’ faction,” are you not being merely human? What after all is Apollos, what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, consigned to each of them by the Lord. I planted, Apollos watered, but God brought growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters really matters, but God—who brings growth. The one who plants and the one who waters are the same; each shall receive a reward commensurate with the labor because we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s cultivated field, God’s project.
Jesus Extends the Torah’s Requirements
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew presents Jesus’ teaching not as any relaxation of the Torah or Law of Moses, but as a deepening of its requirements. In a set of contrasts, he insists that the prohibition of murder extends to being angry with another person and that the prohibition of adultery calls for the control of desire. Moreover, the potentially negative consequences of divorce and oaths mean that neither of them should be practiced at all. With this expansion of the Torah’s restrictions, Matthew aims to ensure that people in his community do not accidentally violate the Torah’s guidance. This approach—referred to as placing a fence around the Law—was common moral practice in Judaism in the first centuries.
“You heard it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not murder, but whoever does murder shall be liable to the judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with another will be liable to the judgment; whoever says to another, ‘Jerk!’ will be liable to the council; whoever says, ‘Fool!’ will be accountable to Gehenna—the unquenchable fire. So if you offer your gift on the altar and there remember that another has something against you, leave your gift there, before the altar, and go out; first be reconciled with that person, and then come offer your gift. Clear things up with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way together; otherwise, the adversary will deliver you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen I say to you, you will not get out of there until you have paid the last quadrans.
You heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone looking at a woman as an object of desire has already committed adultery with her in his heart. But if your right eye makes you falter, take it out and throw it from you, for it is to your benefit that one of your parts should perish so that your whole body should not be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand makes you falter, cut it off and throw it from you, for it is to your benefit that one of your parts should perish so that your whole body should not go off into Gehenna. It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, give her a certificate of dissolution.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife apart from a matter of infidelity makes her become adulterous, and he who marries a divorced woman becomes adulterous. Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not go back on your word, but you shall carry out your oaths to the Lord.’ Yet I say to you not to swear an oath altogether, not by heaven, because it is God’s throne; not by the earth, because it is God’s footstool; not towards Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king. Neither swear by your own head, because you cannot make one hair white or black! But your word, ‘Yes,’ should be ‘yes,’ and ‘No,’ ‘no’; what goes beyond these is from the evil one.”