Sunday Sermon for February 13, 2011, the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings: Sir15:15-20; 1Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5:17-37

In the first reading Sirach tells us that God gives us a choice of options that are set before us. He speaks of fire and water telling us that we have to reach out and choose one of them. In like manner, he says, we have set before us life and death as well as good and evil and we will each have to choose which we want for ourselves.

On the surface it seems to be a pretty easy choice, but we all know that it get very difficult at times. This is because the evil one knows our weaknesses and he presents things to us that he hopes we will think to be good, even though they are bad for us. He has used this strategy effectively for thousands of years and, in our day, he has increased the number of temptations many times over with all of the material goods, the things that seem desirable to the senses, the things that play into our pride, etc.

As difficult as this can be for us, we do need to recognize what the wise man has told us: that we have choices to make. God created us with a free will; He does not force us to do anything. John Calvin and his followers rejected the notion of free will and said that God’s grace has a necessitating influence upon us. From this also followed his idea that some people were predestined by God to go to Heaven and the rest were predestined to hell. He said that we have no choice in the matter and even if a person lived an exemplary life, if he was not predestined to Heaven, he would be lost forever.

Having a free will is what makes us persons; it is also what allows us to choose for or against God. Once again, this would seem to be a pretty simple proposition, but is it not. St. Paul tells us in the second reading that he teaches a wisdom that is from God. He says it is hidden and mysterious; it is not a wisdom of this age nor of the rulers of this age. This is what makes this so difficult for us: we are bombarded by the wisdom of this age. It is in the media, it is in the advertising, it is in business and, sadly, you will even find it in some churches.

So, we have placed before us what is worldly and what is heavenly; what is natural and what is supernatural. Because we cannot easily perceive those things which are spiritual and supernatural, we too often reach out to grasp what we can see or feel. In our society we also tend toward what can provide immediate gratification, which is rarely from God.

This brings us to the point that Sirach makes that if we choose we can keep the commandments. Doing so does not always feel good at the moment and rarely brings immediate gratification, but it does bring long term peace within the soul, growth in virtue, and the promise of eternal rewards. We all know that it is not always easy to follow the commandments due to the temptations we mentioned earlier, but we all have the means to live according to the commandments by exercising our free will and getting the help we need from God’s grace.

As Christian people we are held to a higher accountability because we have been given a higher call. This is why Jesus says several times in today’s Gospel “You have heard it said” referring to what was required of the people of Israel. He follows this with “But I say to you” and then takes the commandments to a deeper level. This can be hard but it is completely fulfilling because it allows us to be fully who we were created to be. This is the wisdom of God Who loves us so much that His commandments benefit us, not Himself.

Human wisdom would suggest that we look out for ourselves first. Our Lord tells us to put God and neighbor ahead of ourselves. You can see why St. Paul would refer to this wisdom as hidden and mysterious, because it is most often just the opposite of how we might see things naturally. While the grace of God allows us to grasp this wisdom, we still have to use our free will to make the choice to accept it, to reject our natural tendencies and the wisdom of the world, and to find our fulfillment by living according to the way God has revealed. Adding slightly to what Sirach tells us, we have set before us life and death, good and evil, God’s wisdom and human wisdom and we will each have to choose which we want for ourselves.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit