Lectionary Commentaries for February 9, 2020
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

Eric Barreto

At this point, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount turns to quotidian imagery.

Salt. Cities. Light. These everyday realities become the ground for an important and potentially challenging theological conviction: righteousness before God is bound up in the call of the law and the prophets.

That is, Jesus is not inventing the shape of such righteousness but tapping into an ancient vein of divine revelation.

First, Jesus evokes the utility of salt but also the limits of its usefulness. Salt that has lost its salty essence is no longer salt. It is no longer fit for its previous uses so it is tossed onto the path to be trod underfoot. This image strikes me as both evident but also a bit disquieting. After all, the Sermon on the Mount is not a reflection on cooking ingredients but on the shape of God’s high calling upon our lives. How is righteousness like salt exactly? And who or what exactly is that salt that has lost its saltiness?

Second, Jesus points to the utility of light, especially the way light spills over its surroundings. The lights of a city on a hill are a beacon to others. So, also a lamp is meant to light a room, not the diminished and truncated space under a bushel basket.

Jesus makes the connections between salt and light and righteousness explicit in verse 16. Jesus declares that we too ought to be light like that city on a hill, that uncovered lamp. We too ought to reflect the goodness of God so that others might see the shape of God’s goodness and thus be grateful to God. Notice that the light in this metaphor does not belong to us but is an overflow of God’s call and grace.

“Our good works” are not ours in that they do not belong to us for we are not the source of such good works; we are only the conduits of God’s righteousness, symbols pointing to a greater reality, signposts lighting the way to God’s righteousness, not our own. Yes, we may serve as “the light of the world,” but the conduit of glory for such light is not us or our achievements. That glory belongs to “your Father in heaven” (verse 16).

So also, Jesus calls us to be salt, to serve in the way we were designed to serve. But what if we do not? What if we lose our saltiness? What if we seek to occlude the light under a basket? The call of the Sermon of the Mount is high and costly and risky. The darkening of the light, the loss of the salt’s saltiness is not without consequence.

After all, Jesus makes clear that he is not obviating or making moot the law and the prophets. He stands in the streams of righteous hope and transformative justice that both have reflected God for generations of faithful Israelites. To abolish the law and the prophets is to declare that God’s voice has changed or, worse, that God’s voice was not to be trusted in the first place.

If we proclaim the Sermon on the Mount as a wholesale innovation rather than an outgrowth of ancient traditions of faith, we may find ourselves participating in abolishment of the law and the prophets. Indeed, Jesus wants to make clear that his teachings are not erasing a letter or even a stroke of the letter of the law. For Matthew’s Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount does not replace the law and the prophets but echoes them.

After all, when Jesus here refers to the law and the prophets, he is pointing to the trustworthy promises of God, to the affirmation at the head of the Ten Commandments that the God of Israel is a God who heeds the call of the enslaved and sets them free. Why would Jesus mute such a trustworthy and transformative promise? Why would our preaching seek to do the same despite Jesus’ clear teaching?

Perhaps we have too often done this in our preaching because we have neglected the shape of the law as promise and narrative and commandment. The promises God made, the actions God takes, the commands God voices are bound up together. And so, Jesus continues to explain in verse 19 that a rank of sorts in the kingdom of heaven depends on whether we live and teach the commandments or whether we reject and teach others to reject the commandments.

Again, this is not a call to mere moralism but a call to a life of trust in God. If we trust God’s promises, if we stand grateful for God’s actions, then we will bend our lives toward the life-giving ways God has called us to follow. Breaking a commandment is not just breaking a rule; it is denying the promises and actions of God. Teaching others to do the same is not just leading them astray but de-forming their very being as children of a God who promises and liberates and teaches us how to live towards abundant life.

The stakes are high, Matthew’s Jesus reiterates, as we close our passage. Verse 20 uplifts the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and asks those hoping to “enter the kingdom of heaven” to exceed it. Here, the scribes and Pharisees are less a foil for Jesus in his teaching than exemplars of the fulfilling of the law.

Jesus, however, has one more surprise to share in next week’s lectionary reading. As vital as the law’s commandments are, they may not ask enough of us. God authored those commandments, not as a barrier around obedience or as a limit to our faithfulness, but as a starting point for righteousness, an opening into a life attuned to God’s grace-filled will.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Amy G. Oden

This final section of Isaiah, known as “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), is written to the residents of Jerusalem during and after Israel’s return in 539 BCE.1

The back story (or historical context)
Taken as a whole book, Isaiah has addressed and tried to explain the Babylonian exile the Israelites had been under for 50 years, within the scope of a divine plan of judgment and restoration. This week’s reading resounds with instruction for people who have returned to rebuild their homeland. In the midst of joyful return, God issues judgment, and the prophet shouts as a trumpet to this indictment.

Same old, same old
Indeed, the people seem to believe they are doing all the right things and that it is God who has not been keeping faith (verses 2-3). They are genuinely confused. They think that by fasting they will please this God and bring favor. Indeed, they have been formed in this ancient practice, and instructed that it is a pious act to fast and humble oneself before God. It must have been a shock to hear the prophet’s strong rebuke of these faithful acts. How could God not be pleased?

The prophet interrupts their claims to piety by calling for a series of behaviors we recognize as themes throughout the prophets: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to share what we have with those who have not, to bring the homeless into one’s house, to give clothing and shelter to the naked, to reconcile with one’s family, to help the afflicted. These are more than one time actions. These are behaviors with broad social consequences, actions that will restructure relationships. God’s desire is not for singular, pious acts, but for a whole cloth dismantling of unjust relationships.

What kind of fast?
Instead of the traditional fast days, “the fast that I choose,” says God, is a whole new way of life. Isaiah reframes fasting as a practice. It is no longer the periodic fast days that serve to punctuate ongoing life. Instead, fasting is a new set of relationships within ongoing life. The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one’s privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out.

The fasting God seeks requires and promises much more. The “if-then” pattern of verses 8-12 sets forth the consequences of such a fast. If the people choose the fast God sets before them, then they will have the blessing they seek: light, healing, help, protection, satisfying of needs, and, most centrally, the presence and guidance of God among them. The people, individually and corporately, cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other. One’s piety is not disconnected from the rest of everyday life. When right relationship is pursued, God is among the people, “Here I am.” The glory and holiness of God is made manifest in this kind of godly fast.

God-people partnership
We are often uneasy about such conditional “if-then” statements. Imagine, however, if the prophet said to the people, “There’s really nothing you can do toward your healing, wholeness, and the companionship of God. They just happen or they don’t, and it doesn’t matter what you do.” Such a dismissal of their agency as God’s covenant people would leave them more helpless and less accountable. Isaiah’s “if-then” language serves to include the people as actual moral agents in their relationship with God. The consequences of their moral choices affect this God. God is not a lone ranger, acting in isolation. No. This God expects a partnership with restored and restorative people. The people are participants in God’s life, agents in God’s desires for them.

This is especially true for residents faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the city and community following the ravages of exile.  The people among the first generation of return, are fighting over who should rule with factions grabbing for power. All the while, these same leaders pray loudly and fast in false humility.

It would surely have been easy to believe that simply residing in Jerusalem, the holy city, made the citizens holy. It was equally tempting to believe that performing holy acts, like fasting and prayer, make one holy. Isaiah’s challenge shakes them from these comfortable religious assumptions.  We, too, are prone to think that proximity to holy things (church, Bible, sacraments, pastor) makes us holy. This is, of course, idolatry. The only proximity that matters is our faithfulness to God which, Isaiah points out, is manifest in our faithfulness to the way of life God has provided. Therein lays our partnership and any hope of righteousness.

Throughout Advent and Epiphany images of darkness and light are central. God’s inbreaking is marked by light. This week’s reading uses this absolute contrast of darkness and light to describe what happens when the people allow this God to break into their lives.  In verse 3, the people accuse God of not seeing their piety, while they are the ones in the darkness of gloom, unable to see God’s present work. However, once the people partner with God’s fast, “Your light will break forth” (verse 8), and “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (verse 10).

We’ve been hearing about incarnation and God-with-us throughout Advent and Epiphany. Lectionary passages during Epiphany tell us something about this God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. “Here I am” (verse 9) is declaration of the very presence of God among the people, as they participate in God’s purposes. God’s “Here I am” stands in tandem with Isaiah’s earlier “Here I am, Lord. Send me” (6:8), to confirm the partnership of God with God’s people. Isaiah reminds us that this is a God who a) wants more than a formal relationship with the people, b) expects us to be partners in bringing forth God’s purposes and c) is responsive to our choices. The good news is that God calls us, again and again, into God’s own life.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 6, 2011



Commentary on Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Shauna Hannan

There are two obvious connections a preacher might make between Psalm 112 and Matthew 5.1

The first has potential for highlighting the liturgical season: the light/darkness theme in 112:4 (“They rise in the darkness a light for the upright”) appears in Matthew 5 when Jesus proclaims, “You are the light of the world” (verse 14). In this season of Epiphany it is intriguing to reflect deeply on how we who are followers of the light that shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ, also serve as lights in and to the world.

A second, broader possibility is to think of Psalm 112 as an extended beatitude: blessed are those who fear the Lord (verse 1), who delight in his commandments (verse 1), who are gracious, merciful and righteous (verse 4), who deal generously and lend (verse 5), who conduct their affairs with justice (verse 5), who have given to the poor (verse 9).

Like the verses before today’s Gospel reading that provide an important lens for vss. 13f, Psalm 112 is a thorough description of the characteristics of those who fear the Lord. Despite the squeamishness of some when it comes to an emphasis on the actions/deeds of those who fear the Lord, there is no denying that Scripture demonstrates a direct correlation between our actions and our way of life.

Psalm 112 even suggests this has a bearing on the future of the righteous ones. Blessed are those who fear the Lord, for their descendants will be mighty in the land. Blessed are those who conduct their affairs with justice, for good will come to them. They will never be shaken. They will be remembered forever. One can hear the rhythm of the beatitudes in the Psalm.

Perhaps the most promising homiletical potential has to do with the complementarity of Psalm 112 and Psalm 111; they belong together. The two Psalms are similar in organization; both are acrostic poems, which contain twenty-two lines with each line beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Even more, they utilize similar words and phrases: both refer to the upright (111:1 and 112:2, 4), agents who are gracious and merciful (111:4 and 112:4), providers (111:5 and 112:9), and doers of justice (111:7 and 112:5). Both focus heavily on the future (in 111:8 the works are established forever and ever, and in 112:8 hearts are steady and in the end will triumph).

The amazing thing about this similar use of language is that one Psalm (111) is focused on the deeds of the Lord and the other (112) is focused on the deeds of those who fear the Lord. Could it be that those who fear the Lord are expected to act like the Lord? Even more, could it be that those who find great delight in his commands are capable of mirroring the deeds of the Lord?

The complementarity of these two Psalms suggests so. Before our works righteousness detectors sound, note that Psalm 111 comes first; it is only because our Lord is already gracious and merciful and just that we are at all capable of being gracious and merciful and just. It is this admission that offers a possible lens through which to read Matthew 5. We are not “the light of the world” and “salt of the earth” ex nihilo.

No, we are “the light of the world” and “salt of the earth” because our Lord Jesus is light and salt and because Jesus proclaims us as such. One could say that the Psalm 111-like portion of Matthew 5 is the fact that Jesus is the proclaimer. The law and commandments do not disappear with Jesus’ coming; rather, they are fulfilled. The Psalm 112-like commitments do not go away; in fact, the righteousness of those who fear the Lord is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

Our lives and our futures are shaped by the way we mirror the deeds of our Lord. Our generous dealings and just affairs, our free distribution and generosity toward the poor, mirror the deeds of our Lord. Our actions are described in terms of our Lord’s actions. Our Lord’s actions shape and guide our actions. Hallelujah. Praise the Lord!

Important addendum: If we preachers fail to attend to verse 10 in Psalm 112 and verses 17-20 in Matthew 5, our hearers will notice. So, homiletical tip number one is not to ignore these sections. Of course, there is the question of how to address them. Perhaps these few points will prompt your reflections, at least with regard to the psalm.

First, note the ratio of words focused on the righteous to those focused on the wicked. Clearly the psalmist is more interested in attending to the deeds and descriptions of the lives of the righteous. Second, perhaps the psalmist is preparing his hearers for their naysayers; that is, those who look on with anger. Verse 10 need not be a threat to the righteous but a statement of the obvious; there will be those who do not conduct their lives similarly.

Finally, contrast the pitiful yield of the wicked (“nothing”) and the bountiful yield of the righteous (verses 1-9). Fearing the Lord and finding delight in his commands will make a difference in our lives, now and in the future. Perhaps there are those in your midst who can attest to this claim. That would be a powerful sermon.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 9, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Richard Carlson

In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians (though it is at least the second of four letters Paul wrote to the church at Corinth), Paul is addressing two interrelated problems vexing this Christian community: various elitist attitudes and dissension within the ranks.

As the letter transitions from its opening to main body, Paul implores the Corinthians to end their divisions and be united in the same mind and purpose (1 Corinthians 1:10). On the one hand, one cause of their divisions and quarrels involves various parties claiming allegiance to particular leaders (1 Corinthians 1:12-13; an issue which Paul will again pick up in next week’s text from 1 Corinthians 3). On the other hand, another cause for division is the various elitist attitudes whereby some Corinthians regard themselves as theologically, morally, and spiritually superior to other Corinthian Christians (issues which Paul will address throughout 1 Corinthians).

The first elitist stance which Paul addresses involves wisdom. As Richard Hays notes, in this context the category of wisdom “can refer both to the possession of exalted knowledge and to the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful and rhetorically polished way.”1 Paul’s antidote to elitist reliance on such wisdom is the cross.

For Paul, the proclamation of Christ crucified, that which God accomplished in and through Christ crucified, and ministry in which Christ crucified is the central paradigm are all indelibly intertwined. Likewise, through these interrelated facets of the cross, God’s salvific plan is both revealed and unleashed in the world. Ironically, however, by the standards of the world’s wisdom, these seem foolish and pathetically weak (1 Corinthians 1:18-30).

Nevertheless, Christ crucified is the standard which undergirds and guides Paul’s theology, message, and ministry as he will continue to emphasize throughout his argument in 1 Corinthians 2. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 2:2 when Paul refers to Christ as crucified, he uses the perfect instead of the aorist tense (so too in 1 Corinthians 1:23). Not only was Christ crucified at a particular point in time in the past, Christ remains the crucified one even as he reigns over the cosmos.

When Paul begins to present what/how he did not and did proclaim the mystery of God to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), it is important to see how this flows out of his overarching apocalyptic theological framework. God’s mystery involves God’s plan of cosmic salvation whose core is the death, resurrection, and parousia of Jesus Christ. God established this divine plan before creation (1 Corinthians 2:7b), but it was a plan which was (and to some, still is) secret and hidden (1 Corinthians 2:7a).

The reality and power of this plan is certainly inaccessible through the standards and means of human wisdom (for example, the “wisdom of this age” in 1 Corinthians 2:6; so too the “wisdom of the world” in 1 Corinthians 1:20 and “human wisdom” in 1 Corinthians 1:25). This is why Paul did not use the means or method of wisdom when he first came to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:1). Instead, the means and method he used was Christ crucified, which reveals God’s mystery and unleashes its power and reality (1 Corinthians 2:2, 5, 10).

Paul’s own ministry bears the paradigmatic imprint of Christ crucified so that he comes in what appears to be weakness because it does not reflect the trappings and standards associated with wisdom and rhetorical eloquence (1 Corinthians 2:3-4a). Nonetheless, his message and ministry release divine saving power because it is the vehicle through which the Spirit is at work to create, nurture, and sustain faith by revealing the depth of God’s salvific plan (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, 10-16).

Again, none of this is accessible or understandable by the means and standards of human wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:13), also known as the wisdom of this age (1 Corinthians 2:6). Because the rulers of this age (in this context most likely the agents of the Roman empire) use the standards of the wisdom of this age, they judged Jesus to be a weak, wretched enemy of the state and so crucified him completely unaware that through Christ crucified and raised their doom is sealed (1 Corinthians 2:6-7; also see 1 Corinthians 15:24-25).

Paul’s dualism here is stark and ironic. On the one side stands the ways, means, and values of this age with its human wisdom and rhetoric, rulers and violence. Some of the Corinthians are using these standards by which they judge themselves to be superior compared to others in the Christian community of Corinth. Not only has their arrogant reliance on the principles of this age caused them not to understand the core of God’s saving plan and work, it is tearing apart the fabric of unity in the body of Christ.

 In actuality, Paul calls them “unspiritual” because they have closed themselves off to the core revelation of the Spirit, Christ crucified. On the other side is God’s mystery, God’s hidden plan whose core is Christ crucified. This is the heart of the gospel. It is the message Paul first proclaimed to the Corinthians and which he is now reiterating to them. It also provides the form and contours for Paul’s own ministry. Through the Spirit at work in the lives of those receiving the gospel of Christ crucified, what is otherwise humanly incomprehensible (1 Corinthians 2:9 echoing Isaiah 64:4) becomes comprehensible. This is divine wisdom. This is how one becomes truly spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:12-15). This is the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and the fabric of Christian unity.

For Paul, the message and ministry, the reality and conduct, the epistemology and criteria for Christian living (individually and communally) is cruciform. That is, it is formed by the cross, and it takes the form of the cross. A number of the Corinthian Christians do not want to hear that, let alone adopt it in their living, which is why Paul needs to hammer home the cross in both 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. A number of American Christians also do not want to hear that, let alone adopt it in their living, which is why faith preachers need to hammer home the cross in their proclamation and in the form their ministry takes.


  1. Richard B. Hays. “1 Corinthians,” Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 27.