Lectionary Commentaries for February 5, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

Karoline Lewis

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

These are great and holy attributes and promises of discipleship. But Jesus does not stop there. With this blessing comes responsibility.

The responsibilities of discipleship

It’s one thing to know and to claim your identity. It’s another thing entirely to live it. But, we have to. Why? For the sake of the kingdom of heaven coming to pass here and now and not just in our future.

Think back to the passage from last week and the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount. To learn is to put information into action. The disciples have learned who they are. Now, they need to know what difference this makes.

Knowledge without action as an impediment to the implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven might be a way to imagine the focus of this portion of Jesus’ sermon. Or, better yet, knowledge without a purpose. All too often this is what our sermons sound like, our churches sound like, our discipleship sounds like. We have a lot of information about Jesus, about God, about the Holy Spirit to share, but that’s as far as it goes. We tend to amass information for information’s sake and not for the sake of the difference it might actually make for another. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist as simply knowledge. Knowledge about God, theology, if you will, is God’s very presence in the world. It is not enough to know about God. As disciples, we have to be the activity of God in the world. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light.

No knowledge without action

A sermon on this portion of the Sermon on the Mount might explore this dimension of our human lives, particularly, this aspect of our human brokenness. It is knowledge without action that perpetuates existence of racism in our world. It is knowledge without action that contributes to our silence about sexism. It is knowledge without action that continues to oppress the poor, to ostracize the marginalized, to overlook the hungry.

A sermon on this portion of the Sermon on the Mount might also ask how this is related to the brokenness of the church: how our churches spend our efforts on doctrinal statements rather than how to live our beliefs in our lives; how our churches spend money on social statements rather than activism; how our churches spend time on determining correct theology rather than inviting constructive theology that might actually get embodied in believers, that might encourage believers to believe they are also theologians, that might invite them to think theologically rather than simply have a theology.

True righteousness

In other words, a sermon on this portion of the Sermon on the Mount will tell the truth about our default setting which leans toward comfort, conformity, and complacency when what Jesus really needs from us is to be the salt and the light—the salt that just might sting and the light that just might expose what we do not want to see.

What Jesus needs from us, evidently, is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. “No!” we might say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that.” But what if Jesus did? What if Jesus’ intention was for us as disciples to imagine and live into a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible? If this is true, no wonder Jesus tells this to his disciples from the beginning. They will need the rest of the Gospel to make sense of and embrace such a request.

It is helpful at this point to compare the Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew. Luke’s version is very much about Luke’s Christology and encapsulates Luke’s portrait of Jesus—blessed are the poor. Period. Blessed are those who hunger. Period. No quantifiers or qualifiers. The same is true for Matthew. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is a summary of Jesus according to Matthew. For Matthew, at stake is action for the sake of certain commitments to and understandings of God’s identity. God is righteous. God sees the poor in spirit. Discipleship is not just a certain way of being in the world, but an ultimate way of being in the world. Matthew has high standards for discipleship. The sooner we realize this, the better.

Somebody has to set the standards. Not that the other Gospels don’t. It’s just different for Matthew. On the front end of preaching Matthew, the preacher has to come to grips with the Gospel writer’s expectations. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is no easy feat. There is an expectation for a certain excellence in faith, a requested resilience in belief, a mandate for decidedly determined disciples that very well might trouble the faint in heart.

This is the challenge of Matthew, and we should probably get used to it now rather than later. It won’t do us much good to delay the inevitable. Learning and embodying the demands of discipleship are best known up front. Because in the end, they very well may end up bringing about the culmination of Matthew’s vision.


First Reading

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

Tyler Mayfield

Given that the Gospel Lesson for this Fifth Sunday after Epiphany reminds us that Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, we might consider one of these ancient, Hebrew Scriptures for our preaching focus this week.

Fortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary provides a powerful prophetic text from the book of Isaiah for our First Lesson.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if we read the positive words from Matthew 5 about Jesus’ understanding of his “Bible” out loud from our Christian lecterns and then continued our (typical) practice of sidelining the Old Testament lectionary readings? Matthew continues, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law [torah] until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NRSV).

So, what can we glean from the harvest of Isaiah 58?

Isaiah 58 provides an opportunity for us to lift up some of the quintessential concerns of the prophetic literature — injustice and oppression, the vulnerable and hungry. The passage portrays a people seeking to understand how to worship God truly and rightly but failing to integrate the various aspects of their spiritual lives. They are fasting, but their fasting does not seem to affect their actions toward others.

Religious ritual when unaccompanied by social action is self-serving. It is empty.

Let’s examine the passage’s originating context more closely to understand the theological issues at play here. Isaiah 58 was written during a time of deep uncertainty for Israel. The Babylonian exile has deported a number of important leaders. But now some of them are returning to the land. The stabilizing institutions of the temple and the monarchy have been wiped out. But perhaps a glimmer of hope about their return shines as well. Uncertainty brings about anxiety, anxiety about God’s future for God’s dear people. What will the future hold? Should we rebuild the temple and reestablish David’s throne? Perhaps one but not the other?

How do we worship God in our own land without a temple?

The oracle of Isaiah 58 can be difficult to follow. We have to pay attention to the speakers. It is a conversation ultimately between God and the people. Verses 1-9a can be divided as follows: first, we hear a command from God to this post-exilic prophet to issue an announcement about the people’s rebellion (verses 1-2); then, we hear a response, a complaint really, from the people (verse 3a); finally, God provides two answers (verses 3b-4, 5-9a).1

We will focus on the people’s complaint and God’s response.

The people’s complaint is succinct: we fast but you, God, do not seem to see it.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (58:3a, NRSV).

We engage in our religious rituals of worship and lament, but our God does not care. This complaint focuses on a single action – fasting — to the exclusion of other actions; this omission seems to be important since God will respond by naming other forms of worship. Fasting is of course associated in the Old Testament with pious activity as well as penitence and mourning. It is not a meaningless activity. We should not allow ourselves to use this passage to critique too harshly religious rituals. They are not inherently legalistic or futile.

The people complain that God ignores them when they fast.

God responds twice to this complaint. First, God notes that the people’s fast does not lead them to better behavior (verses 3b-4). It does not lead them to treat their neighbors or workers well. The ritual does them no good.

In fact, their fasting is selfish; it is oppressive. It is violent.

So, God calls the people to look upon their behaviors. The word “look” in fact divides God’s response into two sentences. Elsewhere in the prophetic literature, other behaviors such as sacrifice are also critique with this same reasoning. These actions of worship do not result in ethical treatment of people.

The act of fasting is not integrated into the other areas of the worshippers’ lives.

God’s second response (verses 5-9a) begins with a series of rhetorical questions. God seems to be mocking the people’s fasting. It is inconsequential because it does not relate to anyone other than the one who fasts. Then, God, in a totally surprise twist, redefines fasting! The behavior is no longer to be associated narrowly with personal bodily actions such as bowing.

God is concerned with the prosperity of society, with liberation from injustice, with freedom. God’s kind of fasting is breaking bread with the hungry.

This response concludes by noting that God will indeed answer God’s people when this type of fasting takes places. This is how to get the ear of God. The people complain that God does not notice them so God tells them precisely how to get God’s attention.

It is unlikely that the author of Isaiah 58 wishes to discredit completely the function of ritual exercises and cultic practices. They are necessary and deeply meaningful practices. But they always have the potential to become selfish, to become divorced from social engagement in the world. Isaiah 58 reminds us all of the need for social justice.

Perhaps Isaiah 58 details for us how to be the salt of the earth and the light of world.


Notes:

1 Joseph Blenkinsopp. Isaiah 56-66 (Anchor Bible 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 176. There is, in fact, a third divine answer in verses 9b-12, which is an optional set of verses for today’s reading.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Jason Byassee

Have you ever known people who do both good and well?

This is not the norm everywhere in scripture. Jesus is the best among us — the living God in our skin — and he turned out homeless and abandoned and tortured to death — that divine skin shredded. Job, both God and Satan agree, is about as good as mere mortals can get, and his skin and his family and his possessions and his soul suffer for it.

But the portrait Psalm 112 paints can still ring true. Sometimes those who are actually good do well in the world. The psalm makes clear we’re talking about material, this-worldly possessions — descendants, wealth, riches, triumph. Their obligation is, of course, to give back to others. God’s gifts are never for us, they’re through us for everybody else.

In a world where all is as God wants, the righteous always prosper. But, achingly, this world is not one where all is as God wants.

The psalm is twinned with its predecessor, Psalm 111, which describes the nature of God before 112 describes the nature of a God-fearer. Pair the two and you have a portrait of a divinity and humanity. Both are acrostic poems, with each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting wholeness and universality. And the psalm reads much like more famous Psalms like 1 and 119 that set out two ways, a righteous way and a wicked way, to commend the former and condemn the latter. We might add that righteousness would be more universally pursued if it led as quickly and automatically as Psalm 112 suggests.

Recently, after the American election tore hearts open, Kate McKinnon took to the piano on Saturday Night Live to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She’s a comedic actor, it’s a comedy show, and surely the word “Praise the Lord” has never been sung so earnestly on network late night television. It was a lament — a biblical cry for the Lord’s presence — penned by a great Jewish songwriter who had also just died that week. Read in a skewed way, Psalm 112 could suggest that the rich are rich because they’re righteous. But read in the context of the whole bible, we know that is not so. Our God has a cross through the heart. And so will we.

There are already clues that things are more complicated than a literal reading of 112 lets on. “Fear of the Lord” is a key to this happiness. This is not reptilian terror. Our culture’s shapers move us with fear through news or marketing. Only fear of something greater can keep us from fearing something lesser.1 All fears pale compared to fear of the Lord. Even stranger, this fear is paired with “delight” (Psalm 112:1).

The Lord’s commands are not made for drudgery. They’re how to be happy. The promises continue to pile up — progeny and spending money and steady hearts. One scholar suggests the blessings here are Abrahamic.2 God promises Israel descendants without number, establishment in the land, milk and honey and all the rest of us. Israel — and all humanity — has failed ever since to keep our end of the bargain, to be faithful back to God. And yet God cannot help but be faithful.

The world is a dark place, as the psalmist makes clear in several places (verses 4, 7, 8 & 10). But the blessed light up the world, as Jesus preaches in Matthew. 5:14-16.3 Scripture plays with themes of light and darkness throughout. And perhaps most interestingly for this text, themes of illumination are particularly important at Sinai.4 God is light itself on that mountain, leading the Israelites with fire, lighting up the worlds, having to shield his servant Moses from his unimaginable splendor. Psalm 112 attributes that sort of world-illuminating light to the righteous keeper of the commands. She shines with God’s own light, and lights up a dark world.

And one way she does so is by lending money without expectation of return or interest. Here the just person in scripture is the mirror opposite to those usually thought to be wealthy. Who grows wealth without interest? Yet it is clear here that wealth is only in the just person’s hand to give it to others (verse 3, 5, & 9). The wicked gnash at such generosity, but the just are remembered with gratitude. C. S. Lewis says that our entire economy is built over the 9th and 10th commandments. Where would capitalism be without lying and coveting? Scripture makes clear sainthood runs on divestment. Jesus didn’t say “give until it hurts,” Clarence Jordan says, he said “give until it’s gone.”

And so we see the possibility of a counter-conventional reading of this psalm — one illumined in Jesus. He had no physical descendants or material wealth, and yet he has more spiritual descendants and distributes gifts more liberally than anyone else. He rises from the dead in the early morning. He inaugurates the year of Jubilee in his ministry and church. His righteousness is unending and undoes an economy of servitude, replacing it with an economy of joy. Psalm 112 is not wishful thinking and it is not ideological fortification for “the man.” It is a biblical glimpse of Jesus’ own generosity, and so his happiness, which he showers on anyone who asks — even us wicked, if we can ungnash our teeth long enough to pray for it.


 

Notes:

1 I’m riffing here off of Scott Bader-Saye’s book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.

2 Nancy deClaisse-Walford in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A Strawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 293.

3 James Limburg Psalms (Westminster Bible Companion) (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000), 385.

4 Frank Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, eds. Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150 in Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, trans. Linda Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 174.


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.1

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.

Note:

1. Commentary first published on February 9, 2014