Lectionary Commentaries for February 9, 2014
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

Amy G. Oden

Jesus’ teaching on salt and light is likely very familiar to you as preacher, as well as to your listeners.

This commentary will address only verses 13-16, offering four suggestions to explore for preaching this text.


Notice the present tense as Jesus tells his followers they are salt and light now, not in some distant future. Jesus’ teaching is not only about what the Kingdom of God is, but centrally about who we are, what our new lives in this new realm look like — tasty and lit up.


Those who follow Jesus don’t merely sit back and receive abundant life, or simply tell others about what a great abundant life we have. Jesus is talking here about a life that makes a difference for others in the world.


We are the tastiness that adds salt to lives around us. We are light that makes plain the justice way of the kingdom of God. Jesus says we must be tasty and lit up in order to make a difference for God in the world. Neither salt nor light exists for themselves. They only fulfill their purpose when used, poured out.


In preaching, one suggestion is to make vivid the power of these two elements we take for granted. Salt and light were both precious commodities in Jesus’ time. Both sustain life. Neither can be produced easily on one’s own. They are gifts of creation that require careful ingenuity to access and conserve. And they make all the difference!


Living in a post-Edisonian world, we are almost never at the mercy of wherever the sun happens to be. We live in illusory control of light, able to create it with the flick of a switch. For most of human history this has not been so.


The season of Epiphany is a great time to play with light in worship to remind us of its power and of our dependence on it. You can use sanctuary lighting to illustrate light and dark, distribute flashlights for sanctuary-wide experiments, or set up a lamp and cover it with a big laundry basket.  Demonstrate the difference that light makes to help convey the power of Jesus’ point.


The “bushel” Jesus mentions here is not a unit of measurement as listeners may assume. Rather, Jesus refers to a vessel big enough to cover a lamp. He describes a light not snuffed out but covered up. The light is not extinguished. It is rendered ineffective.


As a preacher, think about the bushels that cover your congregation’s light. What are they? Maybe the bushel is an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence that comes from chronically comparing ourselves to the big church across town or to the good, old days when our church was full of children and youth. The inferiority bushel blocks out God’s light.

Or perhaps the bushel is the self-absorption of internal conflicts. While conflict is an expected part of any human organization, when conflict becomes an excuse for unproductive institutional self-absorption, then it is a bushel that prevents our light from shining.


Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds. This sort of bushel is seductive because it seems so positive and feels so good. Such holy longing for an imagined future can indeed fuel us. However, it is equally likely that we indulge in lots of incantational speech without any concrete action or effort in the present. Our church fantasies can leave us unable to build a common life with the real people around us. Magical thinking covers our light.


Jesus gives the central insight that lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels. The only way for our light to be covered is if we put a bushel over it. We can hear the incredulous tone in Jesus voice, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel” (verse 15). Ridiculous! Jesus is clear: we are not victims inevitably doomed to being distracted and drained by the bushels of inferiority or self-absorption or fantasy. Bushels can only block out the light when we put them there.


Unfortunately, for some congregations, our bushels become our very identity. Not only do we put the bushels over our light, we cling to them for dear life, unwilling to let them go. Jesus calls us out on this: no one who follows Jesus gives over energy, time, and power to the things that block the light. We must unmask these bushels for the human constructions they are, disarming their power. For ours is the “light of all people. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). So “let your light shine before others” (verse 16).


This passage from Matthew presents a great opportunity to preach about evangelism. The E-word has fallen out of use in many circles, and you may need to experiment with vocabulary to connect with your context. At its root, evangelism is “good news-ism.” Good news-ism is a way of life, tasty and lit up for a world stumbling in darkness. Too many are captive to the lie that they are not Christian enough or sober enough or church-going enough or know the Bible enough to be claimed by God.


The good news is that Jesus has already opened the Kingdom of God to everyone, regardless of who is righteous or deserving. Bushel-free, our lives shine with good news of Jesus, welcoming the lost from death to life, from shame to forgiveness, from wandering in an alien land to coming home to God’s very life.


As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message translation of Matthew 5:15-16, “Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” So live the tasty, lit-up life! 

First Reading

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

Bo Lim

Among the many things darkness may symbolize in the Bible, one of them is the silence of God.

While lament psalms typically possess a movement from lament toward thanksgiving, Psalm 88 is unique because it solely contains complaint. It begins and ends in darkness, and culminates in the psalmist admitting, “The darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18, NIV).


In the absence of God answering prayer, darkness is his only companion. Darkness pervades over the audience Isaiah addresses in Isaiah 58 for the very same reason. Their prayers have gone unanswered; God has been silent. Darkness is their only friend.


The historical backdrop for Isaiah 58 is likely the period of fasting that followed the exile. Zechariah 7:3-5 indicates that Israel fasted on the fifth and seventh months for seventy years following the destruction of Jerusalem. For seventy years Israel would fast at least twice a year commemorating the fact that they had lost their home and their king. They fasted and prayed seeking a response, an answer to their troubles.


This scenario matches the people’s outcry in 58:3, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” The people are clearly fasting in order for their prayers to be answered. The city of Jerusalem seems to be in ruins (58:12) and thus an exilic, or possibly postexilic situation is likely.


The people are desperately seeking justice from God. In Isaiah 58:2 God observes that “they ask of me righteous judgments.” This term “righteous judgments” is a form of the words “justice” (mispat) and “righteousness” (tsedaqah), which feature prominently in the book of Isaiah.


Ever since Isaiah 40:27 Israel has been complaining, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right (mispat) is disregarded by my God.” Israel believes a great injustice has been done to them by Babylon. They held been held captive by foreign oppressors. Their city is in ruins. Their temple is destroyed. They have been abandoned by God.


Israel complains that God has deprived them of justice. God responds by demanding Israel to stop depriving those around them of justice and righteousness! Even though Israel has been attentive to the ritual ordinances of the Law, they have completely neglected the ethical demands of it. The people believe they are the victims, when in fact they are the victimizers.


They approach God in prayer as if they practice justice and righteousness: “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness (tsedaqah) and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God”(Isaiah 58:2). But clearly they are not such a people.


Although they believe they are seeking God through their fasts, they forget that Isaiah had earlier clearly instructed that they were to “seek justice (mispat)), rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). To truly “seek the LORD” is to seek justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed. They are willing to entrust their rituals and prayers to God, but not extend their faith commitment to the social and economic spheres of their lives. Because of their social and economic sins they remain in darkness.        


To cease from oppressing others is not enough. To be a people of justice and righteousness means to be actively engaged in social and economic reform. Israel is to be an agent of liberation, generosity, and compassion for the poor and oppressed (58:6-7). Isaiah urges Israel, “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted”(58:10, RSV). The phrase “pour yourself,” literally means to “pour out your soul.”


This is similar to the expression “humble oneself” or “afflict oneself” in 58:3, which there refers to fasting. By the use of this language Isaiah is calling for a full transformation of the soul of the community. Fasting, when done properly, is not a means of earning favor from God; it is a means of spiritual transformation.


Fasting is an attempt to align one’s priorities to the will of God. Isaiah is now calling for a fast, not from food, but from affluence, indifference, and privilege so that the community of faith might live in harmony with God, who “dwell[s] in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit”(Isaiah 57:15).


It is clear that the salvation God promises is conditioned upon the people’s response. All the promises of Isaiah 58:8-9 are introduced by the word “then”:


Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.


The promise in 58:10 comes in the form of an “If, then” clause:

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.


This conditional emphasis is an extension of the fundamental principle expressed earlier in 56:1: “Maintain justice (mispat), and do what is right (tsedaqah), for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.”


Isaiah 58 verses 8 and 10 promise that light will break forth and healing will appear. In the book of Isaiah, light is a symbol for salvation:

  • “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined”(Isaiah 9:2).

  • “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you”(Isaiah 60:1-2).


Based upon these passages, what is this light about to dawn? It is God’s eschatological promise of salvation. It is the goal, the end, the consummation of his kingdom promises. The light is none other than the Lord himself, who comes to liberate his people from darkness and establish a just and righteous kingdom.


Those who pour out themselves for the sake of justice and righteousness need not fear darkness or abandonment. The opposite is the case. It is to them the light of God’s salvation will shine.


Commentary on Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Shauna Hannan

There are two obvious connections a preacher might make between Psalm 112 and Matthew 5.

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.

Second Reading

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

Mary Hinkle Shore

The second chapter of 1 Corinthians contains two of Paul’s “greatest hits” verses.

At the beginning of the chapter, he says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (verse 2). At the end of the chapter, Paul declares, “We have the mind of Christ.”

Both of these verses are about what Paul and his readers see and know, and what they can imagine. In a Word & World article available here, Alexandra Brown notes Paul’s habit “wherever he mentions the cross to link it with the terminology of seeing, knowing, change of mind, transformation” (431). Paul speaks of the cross in order to speak about what can be perceived.

During an eye exam, the optometrist says to you something like, “Things are going to get very blurry for a minute.” Lenses click by and in an instant, where there had been legible letters, now there are just grey-black blobs in front of you. No force of will or act of squinting can bring the blobs into focus. You cannot see what was there a moment before. Or maybe the experience happens in reverse: things start out blurry and then, with the correct lens to look through, the whole world comes into focus.

In Paul’s experience and in his preaching, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is shorthand for the event that acts as an interpretive lens for every other encounter. “Christ crucified” is not the optometrist’s eye chart but the small piece of glass between Paul and the chart. It reveals the wisdom of this age (verse 6) as so much blur — or static, to use an auditory rather than a visual image. And it brings into focus what God has revealed through the Spirit (verse 10). In this context, “Christ crucified” is not what Paul sees but how he sees.

So Paul tells the Corinthians that when he was with them, everything he knew — from the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures to the wisdom of their best thinkers to the status of various individuals in the community — he perceived through the lens of Jesus Christ crucified. That is how he saw them then, and how he now sees them with their conflicts and questions about leaders, worship, spiritual gifts, table fellowship, the resurrection, and all the rest.

This interpretation of “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” begs two questions: (1) what does the shorthand, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” mean? and (2) what does it bring into focus?

The cross of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:17), the word of the cross (1:18) and “Christ crucified” (1:23) are all shorthand for God’s intervention into this age, to bring about a new one. The intervention involved the self-emptying and self-giving love of Christ, love that culminated in Christ’s giving his life — and not for righteous people, which Greeks and other hero worshippers could understand, but rather, for the ungodly.

This foolishness (2:14; cf. 1:18, 23-25) is the beginning of the new creation, one in which old ways of defining oneself and others (Jew/Greek, strong/weak, wise/foolish) no longer describe the real world. “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Why bring all of this up in the context of a discussion about schism in the church involving loyalties to certain leaders? (That discussion begins at 1:10 and becomes explicit again in 3:4.) The cross brings two things into focus: (1) Neither Paul nor the Corinthians have status left to defend, and (2) the mind of Christ (1:10, 2:16) that they share is a kind of imagination-in-action, patterned after the very action that has revealed God’s new creation in the first place.

Last November, an Italian prosecutor wondered out loud whether Pope Francis might be under threat from Italian crime bosses. The pope has spoken out against mob corruption and spoken honestly about collusion between elements within the church and the Mafia — and the fact that it should end. The Vatican Bank is now taking steps to get out of the money laundering business. As all this unfolded, worries about the pope’s safety made the news.

Pope Francis himself did not seem particularly worried. He is still riding around in a Ford Focus, still connecting with the people. If he were trying to protect himself from crime families, he would not have spoken out in the first place. In a world full of threats, we cannot defend ourselves and testify to the way of Jesus Christ at the same time.

Something like this is going on with Paul as he writes the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians. “What then is Paul? What is Apollos? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each” (3:5). What is the worst that can happen to Paul: that the Corinthians cease to regard him as a leader? That he loses the popularity contest? None of this matters. He and the other leaders are servants. Elsewhere, Paul will say this even more explicitly: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, Paul urges his readers to be united in the same mind. David Fredrickson has written extensively on the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 and the “same mind” Paul exhorts there as “imagination in action.” I am indebted to a conversation with him for this “folding chairs” explanation of the mind of Christ: Imagine working with someone to move one of those large racks of folding chairs that populate church basements and school gymnasiums. It takes a theory (“I think this will work if you’re on one side and I’m on the other”).

You have to share at least elements of a vision, to be of “one mind” on the nature of the task and its execution. Even so, as vital as it is, shared imagination does not move the chairs. Action — walking, pushing, pulling, steadying — is required, too, as are mid-course communication and correction. The whole thing is common work in which people with different functions share, if only for a few moments, the same mind.

The actions of those with the mind of Christ will be characterized by self-giving love. The leaders will act as servants (3:5). The strong will refrain from exercising their freedom at the expense of the weak (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10). Love will prove greater than prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (13:8). To have the mind of Christ is to be able to imagine the new creation and participate in it before it has come into focus for others. And as God’s Spirit calls and equips the church for that imagining and participating, the new creation actually comes into focus for the world.