Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2020
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

It seems we go forward and then backward.

At least in terms of these studies it appears that way. Last week’s focus on Matthew 2:13-23 lifted Egypt as a place of refuge for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Now we go back to the beginning of the chapter to glean lessons on the Day of Epiphany.

This is a matter of time. Matthew’s literary seamlessness makes it seem as if all of the events in chapter 2 happen day after day. However, there were actually weeks and years between the narratives. Jesus must have been at least two years old during the end of Herod’s reign. Otherwise, the despot would not have ordered the death of children under two (Matthew 2:16). It took some time for the wise men to travel from the east to reach Bethlehem.

These wise men or “magi” in Greek originated from Persia. They were followers of Zoroastrianism, a belief system that was a precursor to Islam. Whereas translations refer to them as “wise men,” it is doubtful only men were in this group. Caravans from Persia often included women practitioners of this religion as well. Yet, Matthew clues the reader into the patriarchal context that often privileges male voice, male characters, and male presence.

Matthew also reveals the pain and perdition of living under imperial rule. One cannot discount the level of conflict, fear, and dis-ease in this passage. Herod is frightened (Matthew 2:3). All of Jerusalem is just as terrified (2:3). For such is the nature of despotic rule. Its subjects are coerced to experience what it experiences, especially the bad and in exponential proportions.

Herod is at war with himself because a new king is on the scene. If he had so much power, it surprising that even the threat of another ruler would dishevel him. This is the definition of insecurity: It only pretends to be in control until someone appears to show that there is only modicum regulation. Force and insecurity are opposite sides of the same tyrannical coin. Both wallow in facade, pretension, and appearance. And yes, Matthew’s narrative is replete with “appearance” language.

The wise men appear. With a star as their guide, they show up on the scene inquiring of the one born king of the Jews. The etymology or definition “epiphany” means “to show up, show on, show out.” The star appears in the east beckoning this group of Persian elites to make an appearance in Bethlehem. An astrological phenomenon “shows up” so that the magi may “show up.” They are to traverse the land and pay homage to one who is greater than they are. Unlike Herod who acts out of worry, the magi journey with worship on their mind.

To capture this liturgical mood Matthew employs the word proskuneo. It means to “pay homage” or “bow down.” The writer on three occasions (Matthew 2:3, 2:8, 2:11) references this idea of getting on one’s knees or falling prostrate before a superior. In this vein the word also has connotations of submitting to political powers. In Matthew’s context of Roman imperialism and Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”) this linguistic contextualization is on point.

The intermingling of conflict with a call to revere is palpable. There is terror and tension. There is also wonder and worship. Herod is so filled with anxiety and paranoia that he fabricates his intent to pay homage (Matthew 2:8, 2:12). Nevertheless, this wise group travels through the deceit in order to share of their treasure. Herod’s anger stands in stark contrast to the awe and curiosity of the magi. He is overcome with fear. Upon seeing the child, the magi are overwhelmed with joy. Herod is not the recipient of honor. The horror he inflicts later upon innocent children reflect this displeasure. Yet, the bowing of the magi to the newborn Jesus reveals their understanding on the promised one. The magi “show up.” Herod “shows out.”

In life it seems we go backward before we move forward. There are moments when it seems that we regress before there is any progress. Maybe it is true that we take two steps forward and three steps backward.

This week’s lesson may seem out of place from a literary stance. The lesson from last week appears first in Matthew’s Gospel. However, sometimes there are things we need to see again and again before we itinerate to what is next. Some things must “show” themselves to us once more in order that we may gauge and have a better understanding of our own positioning. Epiphany is all about this “showing.”


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Dirk G. Lange

Every prophetic oracle is spoken within a historical context.1

I believe that, as preachers, we must always begin from this simple but poignant realization. Too easily can we craft the words of proclamation by slipping beyond the limit imposed by context. We shape an overarching narrative to bolster a particular viewpoint (our own viewpoint, our own cultural bias), applying the story to ourselves without much disruption of practice. The prophetic voice, however, always calls for disruption of some sort, even in its most jubilant and comforting exclamations.

Too simplistically, we can read Isaiah 60 on Epiphany and conjure up images of the three magi bearing gifts, finally making it to the manger. We can reduce epiphany to a cute story that satisfies our deepest longing for narrative integrity. And yet, epiphany is so much more than a story of three magi. Even of that story, T. S. Eliot writes, “I should be glad of another death.”2

The liturgical season that Isaiah 60 inaugurates is a season of revelation. Epiphany, in the early church, was not about the arrival of the magi but the revelation of Jesus Christ, at his baptism, to the whole world as God’s only and beloved child. Epiphany is God’s self-revelation to the world, the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. It was one of the three major feasts of the liturgical calendar around which faith communities organized the rhythms of their life: Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost (not Christmas or a nativity scene or magi!).

Isaiah 60 is part of Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). Rather than being the voice of one prophet, it is assumed that this prophecy arises out of the Isaianic school, a school of disciples dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the prophecies of first and second Isaiah, as well as speaking those prophecies to a new and complex situation. There are several passages in Third Isaiah that are almost direct citations from Second Isaiah (including the text for today — see Isaiah 49:12, 18).

Third Isaiah is situated in the sixth century BCE as the exiles from Babylonian returned to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, a major conflict had arisen between those who remained and those who returned. Living conditions were extremely difficult. Jerusalem was in ruins. The people were now divided again not against some outside threat or enemy but among themselves.

The remnant associated with the Isaianic school were on the margins of power. They were a small group. It is possible that they were embattled against those who had much more narrow, exclusionist understanding of what it meant to serve God (rather than the inclusive position argued in Third Isaiah where, for example, even foreigners and eunuchs can serve at the altar).

When reading Isaiah 60 publicly, without also reading at least the preceding chapter, the radical irruption of light and glory, consolation and joy is missed. Chapters 58 and 59 are characterized by gloom, by despair, by a call to repentance (the ways of the wicked are crooked, our transgressions are many, our sins testify against us). They are also marked by a yearning for light and glory to come (we wait for the light but there is only darkness).

The opening line of Isaiah 60 is like a thunderbolt of glory (exegetes, of course, interpret this sudden change of tone to different editorial sources). What surprises the reader or hearer is the abruptness of the shift from doom and gloom to light and glory. Perhaps what is most surprising in this shift is God’s response to the people’s crooked ways and their sense of despair: they are not to mend their ways first (out of fear) rather God comes, God irrupts, God arises and shines forth in glory!

This coming, this shining forth is unconditional. God is always a God whose glory is salvific. The people’s repentance, the mending of ways, the living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt to be made right with God but it is thanksgiving for the one who comes, who reveals life and salvation in the midst of the community.

God’s glory in the Hebrew scripture is always God’s presence. The glory of the Lord appears in the wilderness when the people complain about lacking food and God promises manna; when the Arc of the Covenant is completed, the glory of the Lord descends and fills it so that even Moses could not enter it; when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God responds, “You cannot see my face”; it is the glory of the Lord that fills the sanctuary in Isaiah 6 (Holy! Holy! Holy! Kabod in Hebrew – Glory! Glory! Glory!). Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God’s presence, God’s very own face, is designated by glory. God does not possess glory — God is glory.

Now this glory and light arises among the people, it is the Lord who arises among them, giving what the Lord gives: life and salvation. But this giving is not just for the remnant of Israel, it is not just for those who have returned from exile, but for all the nations. Now, all the nations will come with what is specific to them — their own little “glories” — and bring them to the Lord. Just as in Isaiah 6, the Temple could not contain the glory now also here, the people of Israel cannot contain it. The presence of God expands outwards toward the whole cosmos.

A sermon based on today’s texts might want to embody this glory in a doxological manner. Who is this God who now enters into our midst? Who is this God who now actually shows us God’s face, the face of a child? God’s glory is no longer far off in some heavenly realm, experienced as a cloud, but it is calling all people together. Even the story of the magi is a call of a radical responsibility toward all those who have been excluded from our classical narrative. All are swept up in singing a cosmic doxology.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2013
  2. T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi” in Collected Poems: 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963). See and hear the poem at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Rolf Jacobson

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm — a psalm about the earthly kings of Israel.1

Psalm 72 is an odd psalm. And Psalm 72 an important psalm.

Or, for the purpose of considering Psalm 72 on the occasion of the day of Epiphany, we might call it an oddly important royal psalm.

Some basics

For starters, some basics.

The psalm is unique in that is portrays the role of the king in stunningly positive language. So much of the Old Testament’s commentary on Israel’s kings is negative. But here, note the extraordinarily positive tone — especially the tone of how the king is to do justice and establish a reign of peace and righteousness:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son. 
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice. 
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness. 
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

Even more, note how the king — responsible in the ancient world for judging the cries for justice of those oppressed — listens and judges wisely on behalf of those oppressed by the powerful:

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper. 
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy. 
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

An oddly placed psalm

Psalm 72 is the only Psalm “of Solomon” in the Psalter — the only psalm that bears the superscription (lishelomoh). Oddly, however, there are two “editorial additions” at the end of the psalm. By “editorial additions,” I mean phrases that most psalms scholars believe were added to the psalm proper by scribes who were compiling the psalms.

The first of these editorial additions is the “doxology” in vv. 18-19. This doxology closes “Book II” of the Psalter. (Doxologies similar to this also appear at the end of Books I, III, and IV of the Psalter == see Ps 41:13, 89:52, and 106:48). The doxology reads:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

This doxology marks Psalm 72 as the final psalm in Book II of the Psalter. Some scholars have argued that the transition from Psalm 72 to Psalm 73 is the major “hinge” of the Book of Psalms.

The second of these two editorial additions is the postscript: “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” The important psalms scholar Gerald Wilson, who did more than anyone else to spark modern scholarly research into the final editing and shape of the Psalter, was emphatic that this scribal postscript to Psalm 72 “is the only explicit indicator of editorial shaping of the Psalter.” 

Two things are odd about this postscript.

First, the postscript follows a psalm “of Solomon,” not a psalm of David. Odd. Second, there are many more “psalms of David” that occur later in the Psalter. Odd.

What does this mean?

So, to ask favorite catechetical question, “What does this mean?”

Without boring into pages of scholarly argumentation (you see what I did there I am sure), allow me to cut to the chase.

There are two main lines of interpretation.

A criticism of Israel’s kings

A first line of interpretation would hold that this royal psalm of Solomon was placed at this point in the Psalter as a criticism of Israel’s kings.

This line of argument has much merit. So much of the Old Testament is harshly condemning about the self-aggrandizing, self-serving reigns of Israel’s kings. The prophets Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel come to mind. As does the entire Deuteronomistic History, which chronicles the failures of Israel’s and Judah’s kings and essentially blames of the falls of both kingdoms and the Babylonian Exile on those kings.

A promise of the ideal Davidic king (The Messiah)

A second line of interpretation would hold that this royal psalm — along with other royal psalms that are placed at key points in the book of Psalms — was placed at the key hinge of the Psalter because Israel believed that God would keep the promises embedded in this psalm.

One thing that is truly amazing about the Psalter is that any royal psalms whatsoever were included in the final Psalter. After all, the last time Judah had a reigning king was c. 587 BCE. The Psalter was clearly collected and then edited many centuries later — long after the post-exilic community had had kings. So why were these psalms retained? Because they bear God’s promises about what a descendant would be like and do.

Note that other key voices in the Old Testament anticipated an ideal Davidic King — The Messiah — who was expected to come. See here Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and others.

My final answer: Jesus 

So, put it all together:

  • the extremely positive view of the king in the psalm (justice and righteousness)
  • the key canonical placement at the hinge of the Psalter, 
  • the odd historical retention of the royal psalms after Judah’s kings had disappeared, 
  • the liturgical placement of this Psalm on the Day of Epiphany, 
  • the canonical criticism of Israel and Judah’s kings, and 
  • the Old Testament promise of an ideal king to come.

And what do you get?

Jesus.

That’s my final answer.

As John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one to come? Or should we expect another?”

And how did Jesus respond? Tell people what you see. The lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them.

In a word: Jesus. 

In a phrase: Jesus the Christ.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2016.

 


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Jennifer V. Pietz

At Epiphany, the church celebrates the wonder of God becoming manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived on earth among us.

This gift of God-in-the-flesh came to both Jews and Gentiles, as the lectionary texts for Epiphany from Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2 suggest. Written after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Ephesians 3:1-12 boldly proclaims that God’s gift of Christ is still to be manifest to the world: no longer in the physical person of Jesus Christ, but in the church—Christ’s own body—through the unity of its diverse members.

The author of Ephesians, who identifies himself in the letter as Paul, addresses Gentile believers in this passage (verse 1). He repeatedly refers to a mystery (verses 3, 4, 5, 9) that had been concealed for ages, but that has now been revealed to God’s prophets and apostles, including him (verses 3, 5). What is this “mystery of Christ” (verse 4)?

Within this passage, verse 6 gives the answer: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

Ephesians 2:11-22 provides the context for this statement, explaining how Gentiles were previously strangers to the people of Israel and God’s covenantal promises to them, so that they were also alienated from God (verse 12). But the sacrificial gift of Christ’s own life reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God and consequently, to each other. In Christ, there is a new humanity in which all are one body, a place where God actually dwells (verses 15-16, 22).

Ephesians 1:7-10 also speaks of a mystery (verse 9), but here it refers to God’s overarching plan to unify all reality in Christ. The mystery of Jews and Gentiles being reconciled in Christ can be seen as part of this broader mystery.

Paul’s insistence that the mystery of reconciliation has been revealed to him by the Spirit is not merely to affirm his status as an apostle (verses 3, 5). More significantly, it indicates that God’s redemptive, reconciling work in Christ is not the product of human ingenuity and cannot be grasped by human insight alone. God is doing something new in the death and resurrection of Christ that allows all people to enter equally into God’s promises. This is the gospel, or good news, of which Paul is a servant by God’s grace (verses 2, 6-8).

Indeed, the very divine grace that reconciles people both to God and each other is the same grace that empowers Paul for his apostolic ministry (verses 2, 7). Life in Christ is a divine gift, from start to finish. People can receive it, but cannot lay claim to it on their own merit.

The assertion that this mystery was unknown to previous generations (verses 5, 9) raises the question of whether or not the Old Testament prophets, whose words Christians interpret as pointing to Christ, had any understanding of the mystery. Some interpreters assert that the “as” (os) that begins the second part of Ephesians 3:5 signals a comparison, meaning that the mystery was not made known to previous generations to the full extent that it has now been revealed. Others think that Paul is in fact claiming that earlier prophets did not envision God uniting Jews and Gentiles in Christ in the way that Ephesians describes, even though doing so was part of God’s eternal purpose (verse 11). In either view, Ephesians 3:1-12 is clear that the decisive revelation of this mystery is occurring now (verses 5, 10).

This revelation is not just to be made known to a few like Paul who have a special role in bringing it to fruition; rather, the mystery of God’s reconciling work in Christ is also to be manifest in the church. Paul’s calling and gifting is not just to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (verses 7-8), but also to make known (verse 9, photisai) God’s actualization of the mystery of reconciliation.

This is to be seen in the church in such a way that displays God’s wisdom (verses 9-10). So, by uniting in the church people of different backgrounds who, according to the author, were previously hostile toward each other, God’s manifold wisdom is made known on a cosmic scale (verse 10). The church, therefore, is to be a living witness to the power of the gospel to reconcile people both to God and each other.

One insight this passage yields that can be useful for preaching is that God’s purposes for the church and the world include that which is humanly unimaginable or impossible. The text challenges our often-limited view of what God is able to do or of how God might be at work in our lives and communities (see also verses 20-21).

The passage also encourages reflection on the extent to which the church embraces the radical inclusiveness created by the gospel.

Do our local congregations mostly consist of people who are otherwise part of the same social circles or do they seek to create fellowship among people who typically do not share daily life together?

Can we see ourselves as one body with Christians who have different political leanings or theological views than us?

While the passage indicates that it is ultimately God who unites diverse groups of people through Christ, Christians are to actively pursue the distinctive life in community that flows from the gospel (for example, Ephesians 4).