Lectionary Commentaries for February 2, 2020
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12
Commentary on Micah 6:1-8
Terence E. Fretheim
The historical situation of this text is not entirely clear.1
A setting during the reign of King Hezekiah in the late eighth century is likely. At the same time, hints of exilic and postexilic periods (e.g., rebuilding city walls; restoring national boundaries, 7:11) may reflect expansions of the text over the years in view of new community situations.
The language of “(covenant) lawsuit” is sometimes used for this text, but that is an unlikely designation, for such language tends to reduce these verses to matters of legal import. The fundamental issue at stake between God and Israel has to do with a relationship that needs close attention. The repeated use of the word “what” (6:3, 5, 6, 8) serves to raise questions and issues that are to be addressed by both people and God.
The prophet begins by quoting God. Israel and God are in controversy. God asks what issue (“case”) the people have with God. God’s reply is direct (6:3): “Answer me”! The text moves to a summary statement of all that God has done for Israel (6:4-5), and then follows the words of a spokesperson for the people (6:6-7), and concludes with the word of the prophet (6:8). The last-noted verse captures the heart of the issue at stake between God and people.
Look at the text more closely. The world of nature is asked to enter into the dialogue as witnesses of what has happened to the God-Israel relationship. What the people have done that occasions God’s response is not altogether clear, especially in view of God’s agonizing and sorrow-filled questions to them (“O my people!”; verse 5). This emotion-laden divine language is certainly not typical courtroom or accusatory rhetoric (6:3)! God’s rhetoric suggests that the people have been complaining about God’s expectations of them. God’s basic reply is: make your case; let’s put the issue on the table: “What have I done that you should respond with such charges against me?” Answer me!
The openness of God to engage in such a dialogue with the people is remarkable (cf. Abraham, Genesis 18:25-33; Moses, Exodus 3-7). God interacts with the people about their concerns; God does not dismiss their complaining as inappropriate or bring them into court because they have dared to question God! Quite the contrary, God develops reasons as to why they should be appreciative of God’s activity in their story even though life has been difficult.
God provides a brief history of all that God has done for them through the years (6:4-5). Given this story, they should be more grateful than their complaining suggests. Those “saving acts of God” (verse 5) on Israel’s behalf include: the exodus from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1-15); the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (a striking female reference, Exodus 15:20-21); the deliverance from the Moabite King Balak through the agency of Balaam as the people made their way through the wilderness (Numbers 22-24); and the climactic move into the promised land itself, using familiar shorthand: from Shittim, east of the Jordan, to Gilgal on the west (see Joshua 2:1; 3:1; 4:19; 5:19).
The purpose of listing the divine activity is stated clearly: “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord” (verse 5). Such divine actions are “saving,” for God has brought life, health, and well-being to individuals and community. The people are to “remember” so that they might “know,” that is, come to a fuller realization of what God has done. What God has done is a crucial centering matter that will both ground and give shape to understanding the human activity in the verses that follow (6:6-8).
Given what God has done, the people ask what God expects of them in view of their sins (6:6-7). What worship practices are in order (see Psalms 15; 24)? Or, to put it crassly: what do I, a sinner, have to do before God will be pleased? “With what (verse 6)”!? The list ranges from traditional to extreme (burnt offerings; costly year-old calves; large numbers of rams; even larger numbers of “rivers of oil”) and ends on a climactic point: would the sacrifice of my first-born child do (see Genesis 22:1-19)?
One is given to wonder about the expectations of God for the community or, more accurately, the people’s understandings of those expectations. Were all of these suggestions serious? Were they purposely hyperbolic, perhaps to emphasize the seriousness of the question? Or, is this an attempt to “cover the waterfront” of possibilities? God, I’m willing to do anything! The willingness to sacrifice a child suggests urgency.
But the answer in 6:8 calls the questions of 6:6-7 into question. The basic issue at stake in your relationship with God is not the nature of your worship (see Amos 5:21-24).
At the same time, what people do in response to their God is not irrelevant. “What is good?” is an important question, a question that God has already answered: “he has told you” (6:8; see Hosea 12:6). What is most basic in this relationship with God? What does the Lord require of “you”: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with “your” God. What does the Lord require of you, you who have been “saved” by God? The issue is not a means to achieve salvation. The question addresses those who are members of the community of faith already. Does the relationship you have with God entail any expectations? This text says: Yes.
The orientation toward both neighbor and God is clear. In effect, give yourself on behalf of others, particularly those who are needy, by doing justice and loving kindness (“steadfast love”). At the same time, walk humbly (or attentively) with your God. The “walk” with God (4:2; see Deuteronomy 26:17; 28:9) has to do with life’s journey and the shape thereof. That God’s call for action on behalf of the less fortunate is joined with the call to journey with God is important; the one will deeply affect the other.
This text is similar to Jesus’ combination of two other Old Testament texts (Mark 12:28-31): Love your God and your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
- Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 2, 2014.
Commentary on Psalm 15
There are two divergent ways to think about Psalm 15.1
We can regard it from a historical point of view, understanding its place in Israel’s worship life; and we can weigh its content from a theological, even personal perspective. The first is far more pleasant.
A cluster of other Psalms, especially Psalm 24 but also Psalms like 47, 84, or 150, tell us about Israel’s liturgical life, and shed light on Psalm 15. Pilgrims have made the arduous journey in caravans to the Holy City for one of the great festivals. The time draws near for the worshippers to enter the temple precincts. The Ark of the Covenant would be hoisted up high, trumpets would blare, and a Q&A between the priest inside the gate and the crowd pressing to come in would ensue.
Who indeed may abide in God’s tent (a figurative image, left over from the days of the tabernacle in the wilderness)? The priest’s reply underlines the importance of holiness, that God isn’t to be trifled with, that you wash in the ritual bath before you enter this place of sanctity: “Those who walk blamelessly,” and so on.
Historically this is fascinating. But I wonder what then enabled any one of them to feel they could actually stroll into the place? What pressure is there in these requirements? Walk blamelessly, stand by an oath even if it hurts, do not slander with the tongue, nor reproach their neighbors? We are masters of rancor, and even feel some smug self-righteousness when we blithely point out the woes in other people.
The Psalm says those who loan money at interest can’t come in. If we adhered to this, capitalism would come to a screeching halt! And all these “requirements”? Isn’t God all about mercy and grace? Or at least forgiveness? Who is worthy? No one is worthy — or only Christ himself was worthy.
Perhaps we think Christologically and imagine what Karl Barth might have said — that it is Jesus, bearing our humanity, who can faultlessly enter God’s holy place in our stead, even pioneering the way for us to ride in on his coattails. But perhaps we reassess how thoughtlessly we presume upon the presence of God. We live any old way that suits us — and then dare to come into worship as if all is well? Do the stringent requirements for those who would even step across the threshold tell us to stay away? Or rather to enter as those who know they are guilty, and in dire need of mercy, cleansing, and even healing of heart?
Instead of “Who can enter God’s holy place?” we might even ask, “Who can leave God’s holy place?” Hopefully not those who are no different from the way they were when they walked in the place (as in the old joke about the service ending as the people sing multiple stanzas of “Just as I am,” and some come forward just as they are, and then when it’s over, they exit the place just the way they were).
God’s will, the Torah of the Lord, Jesus’ teachings, the rules of the church: all this should exist, not to keep us in line, or to dole out guilt, and certainly not to function as leverage for the institution to keep itself fed. Divine law, if it is truly divine, is for our well-being; the God who made us and designed the whole order of creation in love knows what will bring joy to us. The Psalm’s last line is its best line: “Those who do these things shall never be moved.”
Stability, not being thrown off balance, able to weather the storm: virtue exists so we might not tremble with anxiety or be blown hither and yon over every little thing. It is only the deeply cultivated life, deliberately and in a disciplined way in sync with God, that can be non-anxious, reliable, deeply rooted. Mark Helprin, in Winter’s Tale, wrote these profound words:
Little men spend their days in pursuit of small things. I know from experience that at the moment of their deaths they see their lives shattered before them like glass … Not so, the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. The world goes this way and that. Ideas are in fashion or not, and those who should prevail are often defeated. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted and uncorruptible. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty, and the strengths by which we may stand, unperturbed, in the storm that comes when seeking God.2
Worship is the womb in which virtues are born, and it is virtue that empowers the worshiper to draw ever closer to God. Mercy is required for such virtue — but these three, virtue, mercy and worship, are how we abide in God’s holy tent.
- Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 2, 2014.
- Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale (NY: Pocket Books, 1983), 252-253.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Loyalty to the pastor, friends, family and loyalty to educational achievements creates various factions in the church, and in the Corinthian church it was probably the norm.
In the 21st century as well, we have experienced the same factions made possible by various forms of loyalties. It is to this that the apostle Paul confronts in the Corinthian and surely in the postmodern church.
The ancient worldview depended much on experience as the best teacher, and so Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 1:18-19 invites readers to prioritize deeply their first encounter with Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul centers his argument on Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of God’s wisdom (verses 24, 30).
Without a personal encounter with the risen Savior (the wisdom of God), it is difficult for people to have conviction through intellectual means. Hence, Paul’s articulation of “the message of the cross is foolishness,” seeks to counter the intellectualism of Greeks, Romans, and Jews; consequently, refuting the 21st-century logic. The death of Jesus on a Roman Empire cross did not convince or persuade the philosophical world of the 4th century, and neither does it convince the 21st-century world. However, to those who have come to have a personal encounter with Jesus, the death of Jesus on the cross is indeed good news, especially to those who have testimonies to share with others.
The message of Paul to today’s Christians is simple: Christianity with its message of salvation based on the death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has always been a puzzle from the early church to the present. Making sense of the Bible, especially the message of Jesus requires signs and wonders, especially if people are to believe in God.
Capitalism, globalism, and now technology, coupled with the media world are a challenge to the Christian faith. Seen in this context, death on the cross will never make sense because nothing can be gleaned from this kind of death.
But Paul makes it a point that, through a suffering God, the world was redeemed and humanity given hope of eternity.1 While people are hungry for the word of God and desiring to have an encounter with the risen Lord, the 21st-century church is heavily bombarded with self-help devotional best seller books whose message promises instant gratification. The hunger of the soul is still left in the wilderness and hence today’s preachers must preach and teach theologies and spiritualties that help people to grow in their resurrection faith formation ways.
It is Paul’s perspective that the cross was and is not just an arena of divine wisdom but a miraculous demonstration of God’s message of love to the world and all humanity (John 1:1-14; 1 Corinthians 18:24; Romans 8:31-39; Hebrews 1:1-4). Answers to philosophical questions raised by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:20 have their answers in the paradox of incarnation and resurrection.
The proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection is still the message to be heard in the midst of people who are part of postmodernity and its technologies. The declining of Christian faiths in North America might be a sign of the need for a great revival if “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (verse 24b) is once again to be proclaimed to all people.
Using the philosophical rhetoric of the day, Paul again picks on the notion of God’s call on people’s lives. He again reminds readers that God calls people who does not align themselves with the wisdom of the world but the called ones are subsumed under the metaphor of “foolishness.” The turning of the world from the ideal to the abnormal is fascinating because God calls and works through the weak members of the society (verses 26-28). In some way, God’s dealings are countercultural and so should be the church.
The deception of outward standards has always misled the church and Paul’s point is indeed cautionary to the 21st-century world. The ones who have been called to serve God must be open to the leading and guidance of the Trinity.
It is fascinating to hear the theology of the Johannine being echoed in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24. As Paul concludes this section, he invokes the hiddenness of God, displayed in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. History tells us that Paul’s educational background was well established, but his encounter with Jesus oriented him to Godly wisdom: a wisdom that opens believers to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God.
Instead, being good orators, Paul encourages clergy and lay Christians to function under the Holy Spirit, whose power enables an authentic proclamation of the gospel. While physical education is of value, Paul calls on 21st century preachers to baptize their so-called theological education in the Holy Spirit and let God use it for the building of the kingdom.
Two powerful exhortations conclude Paul’s message and these are the miracles of incarnation and resurrection (verse 24). It is through these two crucial events that the wisdom of God is demonstrated. It is only God who is able to do these two miracles and on these, the wisdom of clergy, lay Christians, and indeed the church, lies the strong foundation. Therefore, in our calling and theological pursuits (including pilgrimages), God’s wisdom is present and our ministry cannot survive without this mystery.
- Jürgen Moltmann. Theology of Hope: On The Ground and The Implications of a Christian Eschatology. (Fortress Press, 1993).
When Jesus has preached such a transformative sermon, what do we have to add?
After Jesus has preached in such a compelling way, what do we have left to say?
The Sermon on the Mount is both memorable to its hearers and a challenge for preachers. The vision it casts does not get any less difficult to embody with the passing of time. Its blessings are deceptively simple, for they imagine—with an economy of words but a depth of hard-won conviction—a world turned upside down.
The challenge for the preacher will be to make clear the sharp edges of these blessings, to ground them in the lived realities of those Jesus calls blessed, and to avoid domesticating these revolutionary calls to a world aligned by divine justice.
So, what do preachers have to add to these ancient words? The preacher’s task may be to help us connect these ancient promises of a world turned upside down in a context still wrestling with Jesus’ revolutionary call to turn to the poor, the mourning, the weak in order to see and experience the shape of God’s kingdom.
Initially, Matthew draws our attention to the setting of this sermon: a mountain. Sure, a mountain provides some acoustic assistance, but the setting has more to do with symbol than practicality, more to do with the theological imagination than reporting the setting of this sermon, more to do with theological echoes than auditory echoes.
Matthew’s Jesus mirrors Moses in important ways. Like during the time of Moses, Israel suffers under an oppressive ruler. Like Moses, Jesus’ life is threatened in its earliest days. Like Moses, Jesus (and his family) has to flee the threat of death. Like Moses, Jesus too emerges out of Egypt to follow God’s call to liberate the people. Like Moses, Jesus wanders in the wilderness and relies on God for sustenance.
Here, like Moses at Mt. Sinai, Jesus interprets and promulgates God’s vision of a world aligned with God’s concerns. In this way, Jesus’ sharing and interpreting of these commandments is less an imposition of strictures for an obedient life than a guide to a life of wholeness aligned with God’s creation and grace. That is, both the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments are not rules as much as they are visions for communal wholeness rooted in God’s liberation of the oppressed. Also, like the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount is narrated and imbedded within a larger story about the character of a faithful God.
Notice, for instance, that the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 start, not with the call to worship God alone, but a recalling of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).
In a similar way, the Sermon on the Mount is not detached from God’s faithfulness as mirrored in the exorcising of demons, the healing of the sick, the resurrection of the dead. That is, the Sermon on the Mount is not just a list of wise insights but the outflow of God’s own goodness as reflected in Jesus’ ministry. From Moses to Jesus, the call to live a life of holiness and righteousness is not moralistic as much as it is a response of gratitude for God’s graceful deeds and a call to embodied recognition of God’s holiness.
Thus, we learn that Jesus’ teaching is not innovation but a vibrant recalling of tradition. Jesus’ words are not new so much as they are deeply rooted in God’s ancient promises and the ancient vision Moses shares on Mount Sinai. These are not new commandments so much as echoes of ancient visions of God’s hopes.
The mountain, for both Moses and Jesus, is a liminal space, a crossroads of human life and divine instruction, a sacred place where the heavens and the earth meet. This meeting of the divine and the mundane is not ethereal, however, but tangible.
The Sermon on the Mount does not lift us away from material concern into a spiritual plane but coordinates the spiritual and the quotidian. Notice verse 3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I often find myself drawn more to Luke’s bald assertion that the poor, not the poor in spirit, are blessed.
But what if Matthew’s version of the sermon is no less concerned with the materially poor than the relationally poor, the spiritually poor? What if Matthew’s Jesus is winding together these forms of poverty so we can come to know their inextricability from one another? That is, the Sermon on the Mount is not about making a choice between the heavenly and the earthly but the inextricability of the two.
Last, preachers can help us experience this upturning of the world. Jesus’ beatitudes are nonsensical on the terms projected by the powerful, the rich, the comfortable; that is, if we are honest, they are nonsensical to most of us reading this website along with many of those hearing our sermons. How can weakness be powerful? How can peacemakers thrive in a world tinged with violence? How can persecution be a site of blessed transformation?
We ought not blunt the radical edge of this imagination for a world turned on its head. We ought also not romanticize the plight of the poor, the persecuted. They are both the recipients of this sermon but also the victims of a world bent towards destruction, not resurrection.
Preachers can remind their hearers that the Sermon of the Mount makes far more sense to Galilean peasants in the first century, to refugees fleeing violence, to hungry children who know the raw ache of an empty stomach than to those of us who live with more privilege than not. Jesus speaks directly to those who suffer and makes these promises.
The question remains whether we will echo those promises not just with the words we speak but with every step we take.