Today we open the scriptures to an exhortation from an inspired writer who shared the same name as our Lord: Jesus. More fully, his name was Jesus ben-Eleazar ben-Sira (Sir 50:27) and he wrote the words we hear in the first reading sometime in the opening decades of the second century before Christ. As a side note I find it interesting that different Catholic cultures show respect for the name of the Lord either by giving it to children (especially a first-born son in many Latino Catholic cultures) or by not giving it to children (in most European-based Catholic heritages) or even pronouncing it unnecessarily (often in “old school” Irish or German Catholic traditions). In any case, Jesus ben-Sira lived long before our Lord, and the name he held in common with Christ was one of the most common male names among Jews of his era.
Jesus ben-Sira was a man who had great reverence for the law of Moses and for the traditions of his people; he saw fidelity to the ways of the past as a guide and point of reference for present-day difficulties and questions. In keeping with his reverence for the Mosaic law and for history ben-Sira makes a statement which stands on its own merits as common sense but which is actually a reference to the book of Deuteronomy: “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sir 15:17; cf. Deut 30:15, 19-20). This allusion to the Torah might have slipped by us as we read the scriptures or heard them proclaimed, but it certainly would not have escaped the notice of ben-Sira’s earliest readers. They would have immediately recognized the call to look to the law as the sure guide for living.
In this regard ben-Sira’s words provide a perfect introduction the Lord’s own preaching in the gospel, taken again this Sunday from the Sermon on the Mount. There our Lord makes it clear: “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” (Matt 5:17-18). But as soon as we think we understand that he is simply reaffirming the law the Lord states four times: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” (Matt 5:21-37).
As he then teaches about anger, adultery, divorce, and false oaths we see that Jesus is bringing the law to perfection by demonstrating its full implications in two ways: first, he does so by fulfilling and extending them—showing their complete meaning and their great challenge; secondly he reveals that both for the Jewish people and for Christians faith is the key to the law. It was the faith of Abraham, whom St. Paul indeed describes as our father in faith (see Rom 4:11-12), that led the patriarchs to anticipate the law, the prophets to proclaim it, and sages like ben-Sira to extoll it.
Borrowing from St. Paul again, we find that “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21-22). Taking today’s scriptures together we learn that in Christ we must make a fundamental choice—as anticipated in Deuteronomy and Sirach—to place our faith in him so that the end to which the law was directed (drawing people ever closer to God) might be realized in us, and we might thus be numbered among those who inherit “the kingdom of heaven” (see Matt 5:19).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Mount Sinai, El Greco, circa 1570-1572.