Lectionary Commentaries for February 19, 2017
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

Karoline Lewis

This section of the Sermon on the Mount is a more than fitting text for the final Sunday in Epiphany.

Here, Jesus now needs the disciples to realize what it means to be his disciples in the world.

Discipleship in the world

Jesus now helps his disciples realize that following him will mean meeting up with those with whom you would rather not come in contact, with whom you might consider your enemy. Love your enemies. You will come across those outside of your immediate circles with whom the principles you learned from Jesus you’d rather not share. You will meet others for whom you’d rather the Kingdom of Heaven need not apply.

Preaching this text should preach the fullness of the offense of Jesus’ words, “You have heard that it 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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have indeed? How is that a mark of discipleship? How is that living into Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20, the Great Commission, should resonate with this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. This is where Matthew is going, this is where Jesus is going, and the disciples need to know this on the front end. The disciples need to know the end goal of Emmanuel—that their discipleship, in part, means bringing “God with us” to the world.

It is a fitting end to this Time after Epiphany in that the season of Lent calls attention to the ways in which the world will reject such a revelation of God. What do we do with such rejection? We continue to be the salt and be the light. That is all we can do. That is what Jesus needs us to do.

Loving your enemies will not sit well with most. It may not even sit well with you. First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects. Determining the identity of our enemy is a line that has been blurred by the global response to terrorism. Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think. Suddenly, the world that Jesus’ envisioned has become rather small. And that is not a good turn of events. Our similarities have become our differences and our differences our similarities. We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, “Do you really know who they are?”

How far we have indeed come from Jesus’ injunction, “Love your enemies.” We might be tempted to interpret such a plea as dated. As something that belongs in Jesus’ time and not ours. As one of those Bible verses that cannot stand the test of time because the distance between Jesus’ world and our world is an expanse not worth our time to traverse.

The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount is that it is easily dismissed as that which could only apply to Jesus’ time and not ours. That Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. That Jesus’ context did not have the complexities of our own realities of global realities.

Until we remember that Jesus lived and did his ministry in a Palestine that was a Roman province. Until we recall that the Gospels were written in a post-temple, post-Jerusalem, post-destruction reality. Then suddenly, Jesus’ world does not seem that far from our own. And we realize that at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew is a message essential for what it means to be church today. Loving your enemy? Really, Jesus? Do you mean that or is that some sort of euphemistic exclamation meant to remind us to be nice to people?

No, love your enemies means just that, and it is an important message going into Lent, when those you hoped would walk alongside you end up abandoning you. Our enemies are not always those we deem our opposites, our detractors, our challengers, or resisters. Our enemies are all too often those whom we do indeed love.


First Reading

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

Cameron B.R. Howard

The book of Leviticus is a minefield full of topics that nobody wants to talk about in church: animal sacrifice, blood-sprinkling, moldy walls, oozing sores, gashed flesh, “a swelling or an eruption or a spot” (Leviticus 14:56), and bodily emissions of any kind.

Here in Leviticus 19, the lectionary has managed to find a few relatively continuous verses that should not make your liturgist squirm or blush to read aloud in Sunday worship. Before we think about these verses, though, it will be helpful to consider all that is left out before, after, and in-between these lines from Leviticus 19.

The opening chapters of Leviticus (1-10) are concerned with ancient Israel’s cultic system, and particularly with the practice of sacrificial worship. Some of these same concerns are also reflected in Leviticus 19:5-8, omitted from the middle of the lectionary reading.

Much of Leviticus 11-16 is concerned with the messiness of human bodies. Yet, the Priestly authors of the book of Leviticus did not worry about bodies out of either prudishness or prurience. They didn’t even think bodies are inherently “bad,” certainly not morally offensive. All that “mess” is the stuff of life, even the source of life: “The life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11, 14).

The authors of Leviticus worried about bodies because bodies, with their life-and-death messiness left unchecked, could pollute the sanctuary, the place where the community encounters God. God’s realm is holiness, and in Leviticus, impurity is the opposite of holiness. The priests must be ritually clean, and they must ensure that the sanctuary remains clean, too, lest its pollution drive God out.1

The idea that the sanctuary is holy, and that its holiness can be compromised by ritual impurity, pervades the first sixteen chapters of Leviticus. But this week’s Old Testament reading comes from chapter 19, which is part of a subsection of Leviticus called the Holiness Code. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy”: this call to holiness is not directed to the priests alone, but rather to “all the congregation of the people of Israel” (Leviticus 19:2).

In the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-27), holiness extends from the sanctuary “to the land and its occupants.”2 It is what sets the people of Israel apart from the peoples around them. Holiness is a mark of distinction. Impurity, while still the opposite of holiness, is no longer relegated to the realm of ritual, but instead extends to personal conduct.

Achieving holiness requires ethical behavior, not only ritual precision. Holiness is not the responsibility of the priests alone; instead, as Jacob Milgrom says, “Israel attains it and priests sustain it.”3 Holiness is dynamic, it can be achieved and lost; it requires constant vigilance. Defrauding your neighbor invites impurity just like contracting a leprous disease renders you unclean. You must keep your body in check, but you must also do what is right in the eyes of God.4

We are much more comfortable talking about the Bible’s detailed ethical regulations than its bodily ones. Ironically, though, bodily impurity is often easier to take care of. Uncleanness of the body is visible, easily diagnosed, and readily counteracted with examination by the priests, ritual baths, and spending some time “outside the camp.” Uncleanness of the heart is less easily resolved.

The practices described in this passage name the kinds of everyday injustices that not only many of us have experienced, but also that many of us have committed. There are perhaps dozens of times every day that we have the opportunity to look out for our neighbor, but we look out only for ourselves: we do not leave some of our income for the poor, we deal in falsehoods to save or make a little more money, we bear grudges against family and friends. These are the actions that should make us blush. Yet we often become so comfortable with our sins that we hardly even notice them.

Leviticus’ concern with impurity and holiness remains relevant today, even to the twenty-first-century Christian reader. The book brings to each of us the question: what in your life is impeding your encounter with God? Yet it also brings that question to our society, our culture, and our faith as a whole.

Leviticus is concerned primarily with the corporate encounter with God, not just the individual one. What distracts us from full-hearted, full-throated praise? What has become more important in our life together than love of God and love of neighbor?

Notably, Jesus’ invocation of Levitical law in Matthew 5 does not ease these overall ethical guidelines, but rather draws them tighter; after all, Jesus announces in the same chapter that he has come “not to abolish [the law or the prophets] but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). We are to strive to be holy like God is holy, to be perfect like God is perfect; God’s “quintessential nature” is holiness.5 Leviticus invites us to order our life together in ways that draw us closer to God.


Notes:

1 This discussion of purity and holiness in the book of Leviticus follows the analysis of Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, 3 vols., Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1991-2000).

2 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1353.

3 Ibid., 2:1353.

4 The preceding two paragraphs are excerpted and adapted from a sermon the author preached on February 23, 2011, at the School of Theology at Sewanee, the University of the South, and that was printed the same year in “Tuesday Morning,” a collection of sermon helps edited by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz.

5 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1712.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40

Jason Byassee

Reading Psalm 119, one can appreciate why Jesus’ contemporaries objected to his ambivalence about the law.

His own protestations aside (Matthew 5:17), he seems to have played rather fast and loose with his own Torah. Sabbath gets nudged aside (Mark 2:27), kashrut laws are put in their place (Mark 7), and he says astonishing things about his own nature that fiercely monotheistic Israel must object to (Luke. 10:22), to give just a sampling.

A devoted reader of Psalm 119 would agree that Jews can argue till hoarse about this or that law and how to honor it. But whether to honor this or that law, or the law as a whole, is not up for debate. Those who pray Psalm 119 love it too much for that.

We might divide this section of 119 into two parts. Verses 33-35 deal with the heart and its instruction. The law is not a matter of cerebral knowledge alone, but of the heart’s delight (verse 35). The second section, verses 36-40, turns to the removal of obstacles in the way of following the law — vanities, unconfirmed promises, disgrace, lack of life.1

Think of the psalm as a lover longing for her beloved. First she enumerates his delights, then she bewails the things that could keep him from her. The section has an importunate tone as it prays — with 9 petitions in just 8 verses. Most are followed with a rationale.2 All positively demand something from God.

There is no limit to observing the law (verse 33). The end of our observation is the end of our life, as the Psalms make clear often — only the dead cannot praise. Its adherents never relax and settle into living like those without love for the law.3 The heart is, of course, the seat of affections in the Bible. The metaphor is so normalized among us we should perhaps point to other bodily regions — to keep the law with our whole guts (to use another biblical metaphor) or our whole throat perhaps. Our more vulgar age has its own imagery for half-heartedness. When Homer Simpson is upbraided by his boss for working “half-ass,” he whines back, “I thought I was using my whole ass.”

Delight is a key biblical category (verse 35). St. Augustine tells a catechist who is struggling with teaching that its key is delight. Those learning will notice what delights you, he says. So, delight in Christ and the scriptures, and those in your charge will slowly catch this benevolent contagion.4

The warning against “selfish gain” is about as biblical as biblical can get (verse 36). It not only makes the Big Ten (Exodus 20:17), it also seems here in the Psalm to compete for space with God. Spurgeon glosses over this verse by saying that covetousness “dethrones God.” It pretends to decide for oneself who gets what, by whatever injurious means.

To covet is to oppose God’s reign of grace, which should invoke gratitude, rather than the envy that seeks to acquire at all costs. It is sobering to think that our entire economic system in the West is premised on defying this unequivocal biblical command.

“Turn my eyes” from vanities, the psalmist prays. Psalms of instruction like the 119th often take up similar themes to the bible’s wisdom literature — in this case the book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity,” the Ecclesiast prays regularly. The psalm is less absolute — there are vanities, and God can help our attention turn to less vain things, like God’s own decrees.

I’ve worked as a movie reviewer and love films and television, but of course sometimes you see things you shouldn’t. And once the eye has seen something it cannot unsee it. A person “should be thankful in this world to have eyelids, and as they can close their eyes, so they should often do it,” one commentator says.5 Spurgeon’s Victorian age often waxes poetic on this theme: another commentator he reports upon says “A careless eye is an index to a graceless heart.”6

The psalm concludes with several notes about fear (verses 38-39). Who doesn’t fear disgrace, shame, opprobrium from others? The one who fears God, that’s who, the psalm says. It takes a greater fear to drive out a lesser. And the empire of fears that rules our lives can only be chased away by a fear even more imperious.

Both “fear” and “delight” describe the same thing — the presence of God, in this psalm embodied in the Torah — its laws, commands, decrees, and ordinances.

We Christians have had our reasons for setting the law aside. Jesus and Paul do it. Those of us who are Gentiles are grafted against our nature into the tree of Israel, and as bitter arguments in the New Testament sorted out, we do not have to keep Israel’s food laws or practice circumcision. Not because those laws are bad — look at Psalm 119, they’re delightful! But because God’s promise to stitch the world back together through Abraham’s family has come to fruition in Christ.

Israel was to be a people set apart to show that God has not abandoned the world. In Christ, God’s repair of the world is here in full. Jews and Gentiles eating together around one table of which Christ is head is a sign to the world that God’s reclamation of the world has begun in earnest. When the church divides, bickers, or spreads calumny rather than good news, we undo our very nature and mission.

Maybe a good place to reclaim it is to rediscover this psalm’s delight in the law. We cherish Israel’s statutes because they show God has not abandoned the world or the children God loves so very much.


Notes:

1 Psalms 3 in Hermeneia by Erich Zenger and Frank Lothar Hossfeld (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 269.

2 C.H. Spurgeon in The Treasury of David: Spurgeon’s Classic Work on the Psalms, ed. David O. Fuller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 521.

3 Ibid.

4 William Harmless Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1995), 160.

5 A. Barnes, reported in Spurgeon, 524.

6 A certain William Secker, ibid.


Second Reading

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

J.R. Daniel Kirk

Whom should you follow and why?

This question confronts us in numerous realms. We have to choose leaders in our politics. We have to determine what leaders to follow in our churches. As pastors, we have to figure out what sorts of leaders we want our people to be.

First and Second Corinthians both hold a mirror up for us, providing us with an opportunity to see ourselves if we will look hard enough. When we read 1 Corinthians it is easy to start dissecting the church divisions and to call our people to the unity that is ours in Christ. But as pastors, preachers, and teachers, are we willing to call them to a style of ministry and leadership that our years of training cannot guarantee that we ourselves possess?

Wisdom, part 1: Wisdom is Christ

Paul refers to himself as a “skilled master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10, NRSV). The Greek word that the NRSV translates “skilled” is sophos, “wise.” “Wisdom” looms large over the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians.

God’s wisdom contrasts sharply with the wisdom of the world, disappointing and subverting the wisdom of the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:17-25, 27). It is the mystery that is only known by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). And, most important of all, Christ himself is God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).

As a “wise” master builder, Paul builds with what he has been given: Christ himself. Christ, more specifically Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, is the foundation of the church. This is the message that Paul proclaimed, the only starting point for Christian life in God.

The question Paul is holding up to the Corinthians from various angles is, How will you continue to build? If they continue to build wisely then they will build with and as Christ. But this means, paradoxically, that the foolishness of the cross, and the way of the cross for God’s people, must continue to be the means and materials (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 4:8-21). Christ is God’s wisdom.

Wisdom, part 2: the Spirit

Starting with Christ isn’t enough. In verses that the lectionary bypasses Paul warns that our ongoing ways of building will be judged. When we read about “the Temple of God” in verses 16-17 it is critical to remember that here the Temple is not each person but the community as a whole. Paul is using the plural: “Y’all are God’s Temple and God’s Spirit dwells in y’all.”

In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul had told the Corinthians that the Spirit reveals God’s wisdom. Thus the Spirit who reveals and the Christ who is revealed are united as the source and content of God’s wisdom. Being faithful in the building of the Temple of God means continuing to make it a Christ-place, built in the name and manner of Christ’s own work.

This is a stern warning for us about how we go about the business of building the church together. The church can be “destroyed” through the failed efforts of its would-be leaders. So what does faithful building looks like?

Wisdom, part 3: Folly

Verses 18-23 are the point at which Paul’s warning holds up that mirror I mentioned above, asking us to reflect on what, exactly, we think the wisdom of God consists of.

There is godly wisdom and there is worldly wisdom. So far, so good. But here’s where we run into trouble: when worldly wisdom baptizes itself in the name of Jesus, and masquerades as the wisdom of God.

Remember that the divisions starting to erupt in Corinth are divisions among Christian teachers. All of them are trying to lead the people forward into faithful ways of following Jesus. The temptation here is not to abandon Jesus for the sake of secular worldly wisdom. The temptation is to make Jesus conform to our culturally shaped patterns and expectations of greatness.

“If you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” These words stand as a stark warning to us as many of us live in Christian sub-cultures that have created Christianized versions of the world’s paths of influence.

Many of us belong to denominations that have decided we need to have masters degrees before we can be ministers. We must not confuse this learning with the wisdom of God.

Many of us have pursued doctoral degrees to further our learning about theology or ministry. We must not confuse this learning with the wisdom of God.

The Christian books that sell often come to us from people with large platforms, large churches, institutions of higher education. We must not confuse such climbing of the ladders of Christianized market capitalism with the wisdom of God.

God’s wisdom is not the knowledge and learning we obtain in schools. It is not put on display in successful ministry ventures. Each of these is a Christianized version of the world’s notion of wisdom, power, and success.

Why should no one boast in people (verse 21)? Because these sorts of worldly-gained distinctions do not apply within the household of God. Here, all is the crucified Christ and the crucified Christ is all.

“Wise leadership” is found in the lives and ministries of those who embody Christ’s cross-shaped love. That’s the message of 1 Corinthians 1-4. This folly, the foolishness of self-giving love, is wisdom.

The divisions plaguing the Corinthians derive from their misplaced desire to find their identity in particular earthly leaders (“I’m with Calvin!” “I’m with Luther!” “I’m with Wesley!” “I’m with Christ!”) Wisdom unravels this partisanship by reminding us that in Christ all things are ours. Therefore, all life-giving ministry will be in Christ. All church-building ministry will thus look like the self-giving love that Jesus put on display in the cross.

To the world, this will always look like folly. But for those who are the called, this is the wisdom of God.