Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A

February 12, 2023

Sirach 15:15-20                  Psalm 119:1-8                    1 Corinthians 3:1-9                           Matthew 5:21-37

When someone quotes the bible, it may be appropriate to ask “From which Bible”?  Bibles differ in translations and content.  There are many, many translations, and publications of the Bible and many of these do not include the first scripture we heard read today.  Sirach is from the Apocrypha.  Many, if not most, bibles do not include the books of the Apocrypha. 

If the existence of the Apocrypha is news to you, you are not alone.  What is known by many as the “Protestant Bible” does not include it.   Thus, many people do not know Sirach exists.  In some bibles, Sirach is listed as Ecclesiasticus – which sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes.  So, it can be very confusing to read from the Apocrypha.    

One more thing.  If you can read Hebrew, you will find that the scrolls and codex used prior to the printing press contain many differences.  For a variety of reasons scribes would often make changes to the sacred text as they made copies for their community.

These are some of the reasons I don’t believe in the literal inerrancy of scriptures.  Instead, I believe that the scriptures are the living word of God.  When I was in seminary, I was asked to pick up a bishop from the airport in Chattanooga and drive him to Sewanee.  As we were making the hour long trip to the campus, he started reminiscing about his early days as a priest.  He laughed as he told me that when he was in seminary, he was afraid that he would run out of things to say in his sermons.  Our Sunday lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings, so at the end of the three years we preach on the same scriptures we did three years earlier.  He laughed because, he said, every time he reads the scriptures, he hears something different. 

What we hear read is influenced by our own experiences, some of which are in our past and some of which are in the present.  What we hear may also be influenced by what we anticipate to be our future.  In our Education for Ministry program, we approach the scriptures with such an awareness.  We learn from scholars about what the world was like when the scriptures were written and we learn how different theologians interpret them. 

Using a process known as theological reflections, we also learn to relate the scriptures to our present-day life experiences.  The scriptures are the Living Word of God.  Thus, we study the scriptures to better understand what God is calling us to do here and now.  On Sunday mornings we listen to the scriptures for direction.  We do not and should not use the scriptures as a tool for judging or discounting the worth of others.  The bible has certainly been used by many to exclude and condemn others. 

Reading from the Apocrypha, should remind us that Christians read and use the bible differently.  It should also remind us of both the importance of education and of keeping an open mind as we read the scriptures.

Today’s reading from Sirach begins by saying, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”  The next couple of verses say God has placed before us fire and water, life and death and we get to choose which we want.  In the last verse of this passage, it says, “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.” 

Sirach is part of the wisdom literature included in the bible. Wisdom literature is for teaching people of faith how to live their lives. I particularly like this lesson.  God gives us a choice – we are not puppets.  We can freely decide which path we will follow in this life.  God does not command anyone to be sinful, nor does God give us permission to sin.  If we follow the commandments of God and act faithfully, we are choosing the path of life.  If we choose to live by our own set of rules, we are choosing the path that leads to death. 

This is an important lesson, but it is not to be taken literally.   It warrants some examination.  What, after all, does it mean for us to choose life?  We all know that our bodies are term limited.  We also know that we face temptations daily and that we often give into temptation.  We often do the things we know we should not do and fail to do the things we should.  Is it fair to say that choosing life is a decision we are faced with multiple times each day?  I think so.  When I read the verse, “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose,” I remember many of the times I’ve made the wrong choice and been burned.  I bear the scars of many of those decisions and others do as well. 

Still, despite all the bad decisions I have made, I do come back to Christ seeking the living water he offers the woman at the well.  And, I pray that I will drink from the living water Christ gives to me more often than I hold my hand out to receive the fire that is fueled by self-centeredness. 

In Matthew, Jesus too, is speaking of God’s commandments.   Like he often does, Jesus opens our eyes to see beyond the words of the commandments.  Jesus seeks to open our minds that we might understand the reason the commandments exist. 

God’s commandments are not to be viewed as rules to be followed, but as guides by which we are to live.  God gives the people of Israel the commandments so that they might learn to choose life more often than not.  Jesus says:

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. 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 there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Thus, Jesus teaches us that it is not enough to keep the commandments.  We mustlive the commandments.  We must love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Differences with one another interfere with all our relationships even with God. Thus, we need to seek reconciliation with our neighbors before we approach God in worship.

          Sirach teaches us that working out our differences is one of the choices we have to make – it is one of the commandments we may choose to follow.  God loves us enough to give us the ability to decide for ourselves the path we will take – the path that leads to restoring broken relationships or the path that runs away from conflict.  Regardless of the path we have chosen in the past, we will be offered the same choice over and over again. 

          God offers us the choice between life and death, fire and water – which will we choose today?  The wisdom of Sirach is actually a guide for making decisions in the present.  Fortunately, if we get it wrong, we will have another opportunity to try again, and again. 

Let us pray.

          Loving God, help us to choose life, not only in our actions, but in our hearts.  Help us not to judge others; help us to approach them with the same love you offer unto us.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.