Lectionary Commentaries for February 23, 2014
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

Carla Works

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first discourse in Matthew’s Gospel.

The evangelist has spent most of the first four chapters (1:1-4:11) introducing the audience to Jesus as a kingly figure. As the son of David (1:1-17), Jesus meets powerful foes in the beginning of this Gospel. Even in his infancy this king was a threat to Herod. Herod responded to the threat as many kings do — with force (2:1-18). In spite of Herod’s attempts, angelic intervention saves Jesus and his family (2:13-23).

Then, God’s Holy Spirit forces Jesus into the wilderness to meet a greater foe than Herod — a foe with the ability to grant Jesus power over kingdoms superior to Herod’s (4:1-11). Yet Emmanuel — “God with us” — prevails and announces the arrival of the kingdom of heaven (4:17). By the time that the reader arrives at this week’s reading in Matthew’s Gospel, he or she is eagerly anticipating what this king will do.

The readers are not the only ones waiting expectantly for this king’s speech. Jesus has amassed a great following from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan — basically the entire region (4:25). He has disciples who have left their livelihoods to follow him (4:18-22), and they are following him around the countryside as though he is their only hope.

Jesus has all the makings of a great king — a kingly heritage (1:1-17), a miraculous birth story (1:18-25), divine blessing (3:16-17), the fear of earthly leaders (2:1-19), and a ready-made army of the masses (4:25). Could this be the one to restore the throne of David, as the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel suggests? When this heaven-sent leader finally addresses his followers what does he say?

After blessing the outcasts, the needy, the downtrodden, and those on the fringes of a society (5:3-11), Jesus talks about anger (5:21-26), loyalty (5:27-37), and retaliation (5:38-48). Unlike William Wallace, Jesus does not play upon the people’s anger toward injustice and incite them to take revenge. There is no battle cry here.

In fact, after hearing this sermon, one wonders why Jesus kept attracting crowds at all. Why would these masses take such a risk to follow Jesus? The Romans did not take kindly to large crowds following would-be kings. These masses, however, have already had a taste of God’s kingdom. Among them are those whom Jesus has healed (4:23-25). They know that Jesus has great power. They have experienced the good news of the kingdom (4:23), and they will risk everything to follow Jesus wherever he goes.

In this air of political tension and grassroots dreams, Jesus tells his followers what God’s reign on earth looks like. In this week’s section of antitheses Jesus calls his audience not to take up arms, but to be bearers of the kingdom by turning the other cheek, loving their enemies, and being perfect as God is perfect. Compared to all the great empires of world history, Jesus’ advice appears ridiculous. What kind of kingdom works this way?

The principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” seems to be just. The punishment should fit the crime. Jesus, however, tells his followers not to resist one who is evil (5:39). In fact, when wronged, it is better to suffer more wrong than to retaliate unjustly.

These would-be kingdom bearers are not called to suffer passively, though. They are called to do the unthinkable. They are called to love those who persecute them and pray for them (5:43-44). In Matthew’s Gospel love is not for the faint of heart (19:19; 22:37-39); Jesus’ very mission is a demonstration of God’s love.

Furthermore, prayer is dangerous. Jesus is about to teach his followers how to pray (6:9-13). They are to pray that God’s kingdom comes, to ask for what they need to survive each day, and to seek forgiveness in the same way that they forgive others, even their enemies.

They are to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors so that they may be “children of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45). This God allows the sun to shine on the evil and the good, and life-giving rain to fall on the just and the unjust (5:46). God, who has power over life and death, provides life-sustaining conditions even for those who are diametrically opposed to God’s goodness. Anyone can love the lovely (5:46-47). Jesus demands love for those who are incapable of showing love in return.

Jesus calls his followers to be perfect “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). This is a high standard for all who would claim to be disciples. They are not simply taught to meet the minimum requirements of the law; they are to fulfill the intentions of the law (5:21-48). They are not just called to endure when wronged; they are called to love their oppressors.

None of these commandments of Jesus is possible without God’s reign. The fulfillment of these antitheses and the hope of perfection are only possible because of God’s presence. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).

Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom? When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation God must be at work. When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.

Jesus’ message may not appeal to those in power, especially those with the ability to strike with no fear of retaliation. Jesus’ audience is full of peasants who live at the subsistence level. They have known the heavy taxation of Rome and have experienced the evils of political oppression. Yet, Jesus does not rally them to overthrow the government. God’s kingdom is bigger than Roman rule. God’s power is greater than Roman oppression. God’s justice will prevail. Jesus will indeed prove his kingship in this Gospel, but only with a crown of thorns and a Roman cross.


First Reading

Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Tyler Mayfield

The Old Testament Reading comes from the book of Leviticus this week.

The Old Testament Reading comes from the book of Leviticus this week. Upon noting this selection, preachers may be tempted to skip once again to the Gospel or Epistle Reading without much pause. What busy pastor has time to deal with the intricacies of law codes and purity laws? How would these “restrictions” and rules ever speak to complex twenty-first century lives?

 

Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5

So, why has the lectionary wandered into this often-ignored book of the Old Testament? The reason is simple: Jesus, in the Gospel Reading (Matthew 5:38-48) for this week, actually quotes from Leviticus. Jesus, the busy Jewish teacher, turns his attention to his explication of torah, or “law” as it is rigidly translated, and begins quoting from various passages in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

 

Or perhaps I should say: Jesus misquotes Leviticus in Matthew 5.

 

Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

 

The command to love your neighbor is indeed found in Leviticus 19. Jesus is clearly drawing this portion of the saying from the Jewish Torah. The Hebrew Scriptures have much to say about the treatment of neighbor. We turn in fact to this very topic of neighborly love below.

 

However, no command to hate your enemy exists in Leviticus. Certainly, the ancient Israelites, like we today, were not always kind and loving to enemy nations and personal enemies. We tend to keep our distance from enemies for good reasons. In addition, the contrasting pair — loving neighbor and hating enemy — creates a clever statement for Jesus to explore.

 

Perhaps it was even a common expression or understanding in those days to associate positive emotions with neighbors and strongly negative emotions with enemies. Could we not say the same for today?

 

But we should be clear that the second part of Jesus’ saying is not a verbatim quote from Hebrew Scripture. The teachings given to Moses do not inscribe a charge to hate!

 

So, maybe Jesus is not misquoting Leviticus, just augmenting the original phrase in order to establish his later point.

 

Ultimately, Jesus’ interpretation of this saying reverses its second part with the concern for the neighbor falling away (or simply standing intact). Enemies become the focus. Enemies who are not dealt with explicitly in Leviticus 19.

 

Neighborly Love

The admonition to love one’s neighbor in Leviticus 19 is situated within a larger literary context of seemingly random laws. The whole chapter does not easily cohere under a single theme. We are not discussing, as elsewhere in this biblical book, certain festivals or a range of offerings.

Broadly speaking, the regulations provided in Lev. 19 relate to ethical matters such as the proper treatment of others, how we respect and honor various peoples.

 

Indeed, different categories of people are mentioned frequently in the chapter. Here’s a list using The Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation:

“the poor”                                                       verses 10, 15
“the stranger”                                                 verse 10
“fellow”                                                          verses 13, 16, 18
“laborer”                                                         verse 13
“deaf”                                                             verse 14
“blind”                                                            verse 14
“the rich”                                                        verse 15
“your kinsman” “kinsfolk”                             verses 15, 17
“your countrymen”                                        verses 16, 18

The laws deal with one’s relationship to these diverse groups, cutting across economic, familial, and ability lines. So, do not insult the deaf; do not show deference to the rich, or favor to the poor. Judge your kinsman fairly. The laws are about just relationships.

 

You will notice that the list above does not include the word “neighbor.”

 

The word typically translated as “neighbor” does not carry an explicitly geographic association. It is not necessarily the one whom you live beside or across from or on the same street. It is not necessary the people on your side of town or even those within your city.

 

The “neighbor” is the one you come in contact with as you go about your life. The JPS Tanakh therefore translates this Hebrew word as “fellow.” I might recommend the clumsier “fellow citizen,” although I fully recognize the appeal of “neighbor” with its Judeo-Christian resonances.

 

A fellow citizen or neighbor is a companion, a friend, one to share life with.

 

We are not encouraged to think geographically. We are to think socially and relationally. In our contemporary world, we often come in contact with people in our workplaces and schools and churches who do not live on our street or in our immediate neighborhood. Most months, I might see my co-workers more often than my next door neighbor.

 

Thinking geographically might tempt me to worry about just relationships and the love of neighbor only when I rake leaves side by side with the couple next door as opposed to when I go about my daily life at home, at work, in the market.

 

Leviticus 19 gives several specific ways in which to demonstrate love of neighbor. One example strikes me particularly as helpful. The law instructs us to leave gleanings as we harvest for the poor. We are not to harvest completely and leave nothing to waste; instead, we are to stop our harvesting before we reach the farthest boundaries of our fields so as to welcome the poor and stranger, who live at the margins, to take their share.

 

When deciding exactly how much to leave behind, the Jewish Mishnah “recommends taking into consideration several factors, such as the abundance of the yield, the overall resources of the owner of the field, and the current needs of the poor.”1

 

Loving neighbor involves providing from our hard labor for those who do not have enough.

 

 


 

1 Baruch Levine, Leviticus (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 127.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40

Joel LeMon

Psalm 119, the longest of the Psalter with 176 verses, is a great meditation on the torah, the law of God.

An alphabetic acrostic poem (cf. Psalm 9–10), the psalm is composed of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In each eight-verse stanza, all the lines begin with the same Hebrew letter. Through this complex literary form, the psalm celebrates the righteousness of God as graciously revealed in the law. Indeed, the poetic structure of Psalm 119 presents an orderly exposition of “order” itself — God’s law.

In the lectionary for this Sunday (verses 33-40), all eight verses begin with the letter heh, the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And the first word in each verse is a usually a verb (verses 33-39).

Students of Hebrew will know that there is something unique about verbs that begin with heh.These heh-verbs verbs convey a sense of causality and are thus called “causatives.” One could, for example, have a regular old verb that means “to know.” However, if one were to add a heh to the beginning of that verb, the verb would now mean “to cause to know” or “to inform.” Consider the verb “to march.” If one adds a heh to the beginning of that verb, “to march” becomes “to cause to march” or “to lead.”

In fact, this is the word that begins verse 35: “Lead me in the path of your commandments for I delight in it.” The psalmist is praying here that God will “cause him to march” along the paths that God has established, and the psalmist further suggests that the psalmist delights in this marching!

The psalmist begins each line of the stanza with a plea that God would cause the psalmist to do something. The series of seven petitions (verses 33-39) leave no doubt as to who is the agent, the one who causes the actions to happen. With all of these heh-verbs the psalmist proclaims unambiguously that God does the work.

God teaches (verse 33). God gives understanding (verse 34). God leads (verse 35). God turns the psalmist’s heart and eyes (verses 36-37). God gives life (verse 37). God confirms God’s promises (verse 38).

The psalmist knows that only God can cause such things to happen and eagerly asks God to do just that. The psalmist may indeed march along the right paths (verse 35), but God leads the psalmist’s procession. Taking all of these pleas together, we realize that the psalmist is, in effect, asking God to orient the psalmist to God’s word and to the righteousness that God’s word proclaims.

Verses 33-35 begin with verbs that petition for God to guide and illumine the psalmist. In response to God’s guidance, the second half of each of these verses expresses the psalmist’s deep desire to follow where God leads.

The next part of the stanza, verses 36-39, conveys a sharp contrast. God’s law, which is the picture of order and right relationships, is contrasted to that which is false and fleeting. To follow God’s law means that one must choose between what is true and what is false, that which is fleeting and that which is constant and abiding. God alone enables the psalmist to choose the right path. The psalmist is incapable of discerning without God’s guidance, so the psalmist invokes God’s wisdom to illuminate the way.

In Hebrew, the last verse of the stanza (verse 40) is the only one that does not begin with a verb. “Behold, I have longed for your precepts, in your righteousness give me life.” By breaking this pattern, the psalmist brings the stanza to a climax and conveys a fundamental posture of reliance on God, which the psalmist has been describing throughout prayer.

The psalmist seeks the righteousness of God, i.e., God’s essential power to promote and create right relationships within the world. This righteousness enlivens the psalmist — it causes the psalmist to live (verse 40b)!

Taken as a whole, this stanza (verses 33-40) reveals that God is the one who causes the psalmist to learn (verse 33), who empowers the psalmist’s obedience (verse 34), who leads the psalmist in the paths of righteousness (verse 35). The text presents the psalmist’s urgent petitions for God to open the eyes and turn the heart of the psalmist towards God (verses 36-37).

Thus, these verses essentially constitute a prayer for illumination, much like that liturgical feature that appears in many worship services prior to scriptural reading and proclamation. Like the psalm, the prayer for illumination starts with an acknowledgement of the lordship of God; “O Lord … ” Then, like the psalm, the prayer for illumination seeks God’s activity on our behalf: “Open our hearts and our minds by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The prayer for illumination, like the psalm, asserts that it is God who graciously opens our hearts and minds to God. We do not enlighten ourselves. Ultimately, we do not illuminate the Scripture through our own talents or intellect.

The numerous heh-verbs in Psalm 119:33-40 conveyed unambiguously that God is the primary actor, the ultimate cause. God causesour eyes to turn, causes us to learn, causes us to have life. We may desire to know God, but only God makes God’s self known. The psalm and the prayer for illumination speak the same message as with one voice. God alone illumines. God alone can open our hearts and minds.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Brian Peterson

At the beginning of this text, Paul moves from the image of the church as a field (verses 6-9a) to explore more fully the image of the church as a building (verse 9b).

Paul says that in his apostolic mission at Corinth, he worked as a “wise” master builder. The NRSV rendering of this as “skilled” misses the important echo of Paul’s earlier discussion about wisdom and foolishness (1:18-2:16).

 

The point about Paul’s work is not just that he had skill in managerial tasks or that he was clever and effective in dealing with people. Rather, God’s wisdom is the cross of Christ, and Paul’s work was aligned with that foundational reality. True wisdom does not lie in the power, eloquence, social standing, or cultural competition that seemed to enthrall the Corinthian church (or any similar things that enthrall us). A building must fit its foundation, supported by it and shaped to match it, and Paul wisely built the Corinthian church on Christ crucified as the church’s one foundation (see 2:1-5).

 

Verses 16-17 continue to develop the metaphor of a building and make it more specific: the church is not just any building, but the temple of God, the place of God’s presence. In the context of a large Roman city with plenty of impressive marble temples, and when the Jewish temple was still standing and functioning in Jerusalem, Paul’s claim is bold and profound. It is not just that wherever God’s people live has become holy ground (though that too is true), but that the shared life of the community is indwelt by God.

 

Paul is not, at this point, discussing God’s presence with each individual believer. Rather, Paul’s focus is communal. It is the community of faith, “you together,” that is the holy place of God’s presence and glory. This is the third image that Paul has used in chapter 3 to describe the community of the church forming a single reality: field, building, and now temple. This is a reminder that authentically Christian spirituality is rooted in life together as the community of God’s people, and rooted in the working of God within those very real human relationships.

 

It is a surprise — and a gracious one — that Paul says such a thing to the Corinthian congregation. Even these messed-up Corinthians, these people of “flesh,” these babies in faith (3:1), are still the temple, the inner sanctuary. God dwells in their midst, in the fellowship and faith that they share. This promise provides hope in the face of the church’s very human faults and struggles.

 

We ought to notice that not only did Paul address them at the beginning of the letter as “holy ones” (1:2, NRSV “called to be saints”), but that more recently Paul reminded them that Jesus himself is the church’s holiness from God (1:30). There are times when we have painful disagreements about what holiness involves, what it means we ought to do and be, and what holiness looks like in human lives and communities. That work of discernment will continue to be part of the church’s life, but it must take place on the foundation of Christ crucified as the shape of God’s wisdom and holiness. Furthermore, such holy discernment will take place because the Holy Spirit is at work within the life of the church.

 

Verse 17 and its promise of retribution against any who would destroy the church could easily be misused in self-serving and vindictive ways, a weapon aimed at those who dare to disagree with whoever is wielding it. The church knows too well the pain and destruction that comes from that approach; we need a more helpful and faithful way to hear this warning.

 

While people may still experience some sense of holy awe about the spaces and material objects at the center of the church’s worship, we often treat the unity and peace of the church as something disposable and easily sacrificed. It would not be difficult for most pastors to think of a long list of ways in which that web of love and unity can be frayed and broken. Verse 17 may be difficult for us to hear not only because we have a difficult time finding a place for God’s judgment within a healthy spirituality, but also because we don’t think God cares that much about the unity of the church and how we relate to one another. Paul disagrees.

 

Being God’s holy people will mean not living by the world’s criteria for wisdom, piety, or power. Verses 18-20 return to Paul’s contrast between God’s wisdom and the ways of the world’s “wise ones.” That distinction should put a halt to the kind of boasting that Paul had addressed in chapter 1.

 

There, we learned that the Corinthians were claiming that they “belonged” to particular leaders (perhaps denominationalism is the parallel problem for us). But Paul now argues that a proper perspective about God’s wisdom in Christ should completely reorient the conversations in Corinth. The church does not belong to itself, and it certainly does not belong to any other human, but to Christ alone.

 

Paul’s declaration in verse 21-22 that all things belong to the church does not mean that the church ought to expect (or seek) riches and property. Rather, the church needs to see all things and all people through the lens of who we are — God’ people in Christ who have been called, fed, and sent for the sake of the world (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

 

The people and things of the world (including the leaders the Corinthians are fighting over, and the brothers and sisters they are fighting with) are not there to advance our individual agendas, and they are not there to be exploited and used. They are there as recipients of God’s redeeming love. That love is the shape of the temple we are called to be, fitted to the foundation of Jesus himself.