The Revised Common Lectionary for today offers a choice between Deuteronomy and Sirach.
15 Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Deuteronomy is the fifth (and last) book of the Torah and is presented as Moses’ final speech to the Israelites just before they entered the Promised Land. “Deuteronomy” comes from Greek words that mean “Second Law” and is structured as a “restatement” of the laws found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Parts of it were revised as late as 450 BCE, but the bulk of the book is generally dated to the reign of King Josiah of Judea (640-609 BCE).
It is also the first book of the didactic “Deuteronomic History” which consists of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This “History” teaches that when the people and kings of Israel and Judea worshiped YHWH properly, they prospered, but when they worshiped false gods, other nations (the Assyrians in 722 BCE and Babylonians in 587) conquered them.
Today’s reading is a continuation of Chapter 29 and scholars agree that verses 1 to 10 in Chapter 30 (which precede today’s reading) are a later insertion between Chapter 29 and today’s reading. This is shown by the reference to the “book of the law” in verse 10. The Torah itself (as a unified book) did not exist until it was finalized and codified in the 5th Century BCE. Similarly, the words “gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you” (v.3) shows that this text was directed at the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon in 539 BCE rather than the Israelites in the Wilderness in 1200 BCE.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that verses 11 to 14 of this chapter (“the commandment is not too hard for you nor is it too far away”) “challenge the assumptions of Near Eastern wisdom schools about the inaccessibility of divine wisdom and the limits of human knowledge” as exemplified by the Book of Job.
Consistent with the over-all Deuteronomic theme that YHWH controls everything, the Exile and the other conquests of Judea were not seen as the result of the greater economic and military might of foreign nations, but as the result of Israel’s failing to obey the commandments of the LORD (v. 16) and being “led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them” (v.17).
Verses 16 and 17 start with “if” and reflect the Deuteronomists’ understanding that the Covenant with the LORD was conditional. Judea failed to live up to its part of the Covenant, and this is why it suffered.
The NAOB points out that in the technical language of Near Eastern treaties “love the LORD and walk in his ways” (v.16) means to act loyally and to honor the commitments of the treaty. The choice is between life and death. Living outside the Covenant means death.
15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
16 He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
17 Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
18 For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything;
19 his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action.
20 He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.
The Book of Sirach is not included in the Jewish version of the Hebrew Bible but is included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox versions of the Hebrew Bible. Protestants place Sirach in a separate section of the Bible called the “Apocrypha” (which means “hidden books”).
The book is known by the name of its author, and its full title is “The Wisdom of Jesus [which is Greek for Yeshua or Joshua], son of Sirach.” In the Roman Catholic tradition, the book is known as “Ecclesiasticus” (“the Church’s book”).
It was written between 200 and 180 BCE, when the Seleucids (from Syria) ruled Judea and tried to impose Greek gods upon the Judeans. Ben Sira described himself as a “scribe” (a person of learning).
The Prologue to Sirach (written by Sirach’s grandson after 132 BCE) contains the first reference in Jewish Literature to “the Law, the Prophesies, and the rest of the books” – the division of the Hebrew Bible into three parts. Sirach primarily consists of “traditional” advice to young Jewish men, consistent with the advice given to young men in the Book of Proverbs.
In today’s reading, Sirach reiterated the theme of Chapter 30 in Deuteronomy that the Judeans must choose whether to obey the commandments or not. Consistent with today’s reading from Deuteronomy, the choice is between life and death (v.17).
Sirach, however, emphasized free will (vv.15 and 16) and stated that the choice was between opposites (fire and water). He emphasized that God is omniscient (“he knows every human action” v.19) but “has not commanded anyone to be wicked or given anyone permission to sin” (v.20).
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
1 Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Corinth, a large port city in Greece, was the heart of Roman imperial culture in Greece. It was among the early Jesus Follower communities that Paul founded. Its culture was diverse and Hellenistic, and Corinthians emphasized reason and secular wisdom. In addition to Paul, other Jesus Followers also taught in Corinth, sometimes in ways inconsistent with Paul’s understandings of what it meant to be a Jesus Follower. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written in the mid-50’s (CE) (likely while Paul was in Ephesus) and presented his views on several issues.
It is one of Paul’s most important letters because it is one of the earliest proclamations of Jesus’ death on behalf of sinners (“for our sins” 15:3) and his resurrection (15:4-5). The letter also contains the basic formula for celebrating the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26).
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written in the 50’s (CE) and presented his views on many issues that were controversial in this Jesus Follower Community.
Today’s reading continues Paul’s argument to the Corinthians. In a reversal of his statements in Chapter 2 about the Corinthians’ spiritual knowledge, he asserted that he could not speak to them as “spiritual people” (v.1) and they needed to be fed spiritual “baby food” (v.2) because they were still “of the flesh” and engaging in quarreling (v.3).
When Paul spoke of the “flesh” in all his epistles, he was not referring to the human body, but rather to “human inclinations” such a quarreling and being jealous (v.3).
Paul emphasized that growth in faith comes from God (v.7), and that particular teachers, including himself and Apollos, were “servants” (vv. 5 and 9) through whom the Corinthians came to believe. The Greek word for “servants” is “diakonoi” from which we get the word “deacon.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary points out that even though faith is a divine gift, it does not bypass incarnational channels such as Paul and Apollos.
21 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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 for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 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 for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
The Gospel of Matthew highlights Jesus’ origins and identity. Written around 85 CE by an anonymous author, the Gospel began Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham and depicted Jesus as a teacher of the Law like Moses. More than any other Gospel, Matthew quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (using the Greek Septuagint translation) to illustrate that Jesus was the Messiah.
Having been written after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Gospel reflected the controversies between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees for control of Judaism going forward. Accordingly, the Gospel contains many harsh sayings about the Pharisees. The Gospel is intended primarily for the late First Century Jewish Jesus Follower community.
The Gospel relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark and included all but 60 verses from Mark. Like Luke, Matthew also used a “Sayings Source” (called “Q” by scholars) which are found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and John. There are also a substantial number of stories that are unique to Matthew: the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception was revealed to Joseph in a dream (rather than by an angel to Mary as in Luke); the Visit of the Magi; the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod; the Flight to Egypt; the Laborers in the Vineyard; and the earthquake on Easter Morning, among others.
Today’s reading continues the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5 to 7 of the Gospel According to Matthew. Proclaiming the Law from the mountain was reminiscent of Moses’ going up the Holy Mountain (Sinai or Horeb, depending on the source) to receive the Teaching (the Torah).
The Sermon on the Mount is part of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus of Nazareth as a “New Moses” whose life was threatened by the temporal king (Pharaoh/Herod), who traveled to Egypt, came back from Egypt to Israel (the Exodus/return to Israel in Matt. 2:21), went into the water (Moses in the bulrushes and the Sea of Reeds/Jesus’ Baptism), time in the Wilderness (40 years/40 days), and teaching from the mountain.
Portraying Jesus as the Messiah as a “New Moses” would have been seen as a fulfillment of words attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:10 (“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”)
Today’s reading reflected an intensification and higher standard of conduct in forbidding thoughts and words that could become a basis for active violations of commandments.
The “council” (v.22) is (in Greek) the Sanhedrin and referred to the Jewish High Council in Jerusalem. “Hell” in v.22 is “Gehenna” in Greek, a word based on the Hebrew word “Gehinnom,” a valley south of Jerusalem associated with child sacrifice to the pagan god, Molech. Because Gehinnon – by the First Century CE — was a garbage dump at which fires burned, according to The Jewish Annotated New Testament, it became associated with purgatory or with hell where the wicked, in some traditions, are tortured after death.
The reference to leaving one’s gift at the altar (v.23) presumed that Jesus’ audience continued to practice Temple sacrifice. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary notes that Jesus’ requirement is consistent with prophetic teaching in setting a priority of ethics over cult and that there can be no true worship of God without justice.
The JANT notes that lust was viewed with deep disdain in ancient Judaism, for example in Job 31:1 and 9. Most commentators consider the “tear out your eye” and “cut off your right hand” language (vv.29-30) as hyperbole for teaching purposes. The NJBC observes that v.28 “teaches the truth of experience that when a person has seriously decided to commit a wrong, the moral evil is already present, even though it can be increased by further action.”
The sexual ethics of Jesus (vv.31-32) are very strict and are consistent with Mark 10 and Luke 16, except that Mark and Luke do not include the exception permitting divorce of a wife on the grounds of “unchastity.” On the teaching on divorce, The NJBC observes that Deut. 24:1-4 described divorce and implicitly ratified it. The NJBC goes on to say that to understand Matthew, it is important to realize that in Israelite law, an adulterous woman was punishable by death and that all of these rules assumed male superiority with no rights for the woman except what her family could enforce.
According to The NJBC, giving a “certificate of divorce” (a “get”) (v.31) was a protection for the woman to assure another man of her freedom to remarry.
The exception for divorce for reasons of “unchastity” (v.32) presents interpretive problems. The JANT observes that it is clear that Jesus’ intent was to set out a clear and high ideal of human relations based on a vision of marriage as a covenant of personal love. The strictness on Jesus’ view is further emphasized by the fact that the Greek word translated as “unchastity” (porneias) (v.32) is understood by The NJBC as prostitution and by The JANT as incest, both of which are extreme forms of “unchastity.”
Jesus’ teaching about taking oaths is also very strict. The Bible rule cited by Jesus prohibiting swearing falsely (v.33) is based on Lev. 19:12, Num. 30:2 and Deut. 23:21 but those verses do not prohibit taking oaths. Jesus modified the rule to say that one should not swear at all (v.34). According to The NJBC, however, verse 38 (Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes or No, No’) was a form of oath.