Lectionary Commentaries for February 2, 2014
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Amy G. Oden

Happiness has become a science in recent decades.

Neurochemistry, brain studies, and the ever-present consumer sciences, have tried to describe and prescribe a sort of anatomy of happiness. Algorithms determine which ads pop up on your web browser to appeal to your daily happiness quota.


We want to be happy. We think we should be happy. We are often shocked to find out that what we want does not make us happy. It might be an interesting exercise to ask your congregation to think of a time they were happy (a day, an event), and ponder what about the experience produced happiness.


In the church and in Christian life, we can be very confused about happiness. Will joining a church make me happy? Will following Jesus make me happy? What if I join a church and follow Jesus but I’m still not happy?


In these opening verses of Matthew 5, Jesus teaches about “blessedness,” a word tough to get at in the English language and in American culture. The “blessed” are not the “happy” in the sense used in consumer culture to describe pleasure.


The Greek word used here, makarios, has a semantic range that includes fortunate, happy, privileged. Happiness and blessedness may overlap but they are not identical. Indeed, as Jesus describes those who are “blessed,” it’s hard to see “happiness” written on any of these lives. So what is Jesus talking about?


Jesus begins this teaching, not with promises of happiness, but with promises of blessedness even, and perhaps most, in hard human experiences of mourning, meekness, peacemaking, persecution, and poverty of spirit. Jesus’ form of “blessedness” only makes sense in light of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ teaching here begins and ends with the kingdom of God (verses 3 and 10). Jesus had already preached that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). The kingdom sets a new frame of reference for “blessedness.”


Within God’s life (kingdom) “blessedness” does not depend on wealth or health or status. It is not a reward for righteousness or duty. Rather, blessedness is God’s sheer gift. In the realm of God, life is not governed by honor and shame, but by the promise of abundant life. Mourning, poverty of spirit, and meekness reveal this inbreaking of God’s abundant life. When we have “eyes to see” our lives within the kingdom of God, it’s like pushing the reset button.


Take the first beatitude, for example. Poverty of spirit bears within it the blessing of life abundant. When one is poor in heart and mind, one is emptied, we are free of clutter, available and roomy. When we are “wealthy in spirit,” we are full of ourselves, eager to display how much we know, how much we can do. Or we are filled up with multi-tasking, preoccupied by busy-ness.


There is “no room in the inn” for God to do a new thing. Blessed, then, are the poor in spirit, these ones not so full of themselves. They show us open lives, available for the mercy that re-orders life in the reign of God. Mercy is the currency of the kingdom of heaven.


Some preachers avoid “kingdom of God” language altogether because it’s a political and theological minefield. I want to address it here to encourage preachers to do more than just avoid it.


“Kingdom of God” is a rich image that Jesus uses as short hand to convey a full-blown re-ordering of reality. It’s packed with layers and textures, so it’s okay if you can’t find the one, perfect phrase that sufficiently carries its weight in English. Play around with it, push yourself to clarify what “kingdom of God” means, and then translate it in ways that are compelling for your folks.


This is not to diminish concerns about the vocabulary of “kingdom.” We justifiably object to describing the eschatological life of God with an image so burdened by the crimes of empire. Plus, the term carries patriarchal and hierarchical overtones. “Kings” get a rather bad rap in the Old Testament, New Testament and Church History — do we really want to load God’s inbreaking mercy with all that baggage?  A frequent substitute, “reign of God,” while more gender neutral, doesn’t get us much further from this corrupt record.


For me, the central theological objection is that “kingdom” language misleads about the very nature of the eschatological life of God. Most of us have never lived in a “kingdom,” that is, under a monarchy, so the word “kingdom” removes us from our everyday, concrete lives into the fairytale world of kings and knights, princesses and castles. “Kingdom” makes God’s life sound far away and long ago.


The words “kingdom of heaven” further remove God’s life to something “up there,” ethereal and disconnected from making breakfast or taking the bus to work. At worst, “kingdom” is a static, motionless state waiting our arrival. At best, a happy place we visit occasionally, like Disneyland. “Kingdom” language rarely points us to the disruptive, abundant life Jesus promises. Still, it is the language we have received, and I want to find ways to use it faithfully.


What language functions best in your own context to describe new life in God for the whole world in Jesus’ name? Maybe you will use the phrase “kingdom of God,” or “household of God,” or “God’s way of life,” or find something more vivid. Remember this is not about political correctness. It is about being sure you are preaching the good news, giving folks ways to step into this amazing divine life that Jesus announces is near.


Lastly, a word about Epiphany. As we move from Jesus’ birth to his baptism to the Sermon on the Mount, the picture of Jesus starts to take shape. We begin to see more and more clearly this Jesus of Nazareth, this God Incarnate, and the new way of life he proclaims. Not only in the manger, but also in Jesus’ teaching, God is revealed. In the ways this kingdom works, the way this household is run, in its values and priorities, God is made known.


This revelation of God’s life is an invitation that calls for a response. If we choose to follow Jesus into God’s abundant life, we will conform to the way this kingdom works, its values and priorities. We are born and reborn into new relationship with God, each other and creation. Jesus invites us: Repent and follow. Repent and follow. Repeat. Kingdom life is a responsive life, always seeking, always moving.

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 6:1-8

Terence E. Fretheim

The historical situation of this text is not entirely clear.

A setting during the reign of King Hezekiah in the late eighth century is likely. At the same time, hints of exilic and postexilic periods (e.g., rebuilding city walls; restoring national boundaries, 7:11) may reflect expansions of the text over the years in view of new community situations.

The language of “(covenant) lawsuit” is sometimes used for this text, but that is an unlikely designation, for such language tends to reduce these verses to matters of legal import. The fundamental issue at stake between God and Israel has to do with a relationship that needs close attention. The repeated use of the word “what” (6:3, 5, 6, 8) serves to raise questions and issues that are to be addressed by both people and God.

The prophet begins by quoting God. Israel and God are in controversy. God asks what issue (“case”) the people have with God. God’s reply is direct (6:3): “Answer me”! The text moves to a summary statement of all that God has done for Israel (6:4-5), and then follows the words of a spokesperson for the people (6:6-7), and concludes with the word of the prophet (6:8). The last-noted verse captures the heart of the issue at stake between God and people.

Look at the text more closely. The world of nature is asked to enter into the dialogue as witnesses of what has happened to the God-Israel relationship. What the people have done that occasions God’s response is not altogether clear, especially in view of God’s agonizing and sorrow-filled questions to them (“O my people!”; verse 5). This emotion-laden divine language is certainly not typical courtroom or accusatory rhetoric (6:3)! God’s rhetoric suggests that the people have been complaining about God’s expectations of them. God’s basic reply is: make your case; let’s put the issue on the table: “What have I done that you should respond with such charges against me?” Answer me!  

The openness of God to engage in such a dialogue with the people is remarkable (cf. Abraham, Genesis 18:25-33; Moses, Exodus 3-7). God interacts with the people about their concerns; God does not dismiss their complaining as inappropriate or bring them into court because they have dared to question God! Quite the contrary, God develops reasons as to why they should be appreciative of God’s activity in their story even though life has been difficult.

God provides a brief history of all that God has done for them through the years (6:4-5). Given this story, they should be more grateful than their complaining suggests. Those “saving acts of God” (verse 5) on Israel’s behalf include: the exodus from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1-15); the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (a striking female reference, Exodus 15:20-21); the deliverance from the Moabite King Balak through the agency of Balaam as the people made their way through the wilderness (Numbers 22-24); and the climactic move into the promised land itself, using familiar shorthand:  from Shittim, east of the Jordan, to Gilgal on the west (see Joshua 2:1; 3:1; 4:19; 5:19). 

The purpose of listing the divine activity is stated clearly: “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord” (verse 5). Such divine actions are “saving,” for God has brought life, health, and well-being to individuals and community. The people are to “remember” so that they might “know,” that is, come to a fuller realization of what God has done. What God has done is a crucial centering matter that will both ground and give shape to understanding the human activity in the verses that follow (6:6-8).  

Given what God has done, the people ask what God expects of them in view of their sins (6:6-7).  What worship practices are in order (see Psalms 15; 24)?  Or, to put it crassly: what do I, a sinner, have to do before God will be pleased?  “With what (verse 6)”!? The list ranges from traditional to extreme (burnt offerings; costly year-old calves; large numbers of rams; even larger numbers of “rivers of oil”) and ends on a climactic point:  would the sacrifice of my first-born child do (see Genesis 22:1-19)?    

One is given to wonder about the expectations of God for the community or, more accurately, the people’s understandings of those expectations. Were all of these suggestions serious? Were they purposely hyperbolic, perhaps to emphasize the seriousness of the question? Or, is this an attempt to “cover the waterfront” of possibilities? God, I’m willing to do anything! The willingness to sacrifice a child suggests urgency.

But the answer in 6:8 calls the questions of 6:6-7 into question. The basic issue at stake in your relationship with God is not the nature of your worship (see Amos 5:21-24).

At the same time, what people do in response to their God is not irrelevant. “What is good?” is an important question, a question that God has already answered: “he has told you” (6:8; see Hosea 12:6). What is most basic in this relationship with God? What does the Lord require of “you”: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with “your” God. What does the Lord require of you, you who have been “saved” by God? The issue is not a means to achieve salvation. The question addresses those who are members of the community of faith already. Does the relationship you have with God entail any expectations? This text says: Yes.

The orientation toward both neighbor and God is clear. In effect, give yourself on behalf of others, particularly those who are needy, by doing justice and loving kindness (“steadfast love”). At the same time, walk humbly (or attentively) with your God. The “walk” with God (4:2; see Deuteronomy 26:17; 28:9) has to do with life’s journey and the shape thereof. That God’s call for action on behalf of the less fortunate is joined with the call to journey with God is important; the one will deeply affect the other. 

This text is similar to Jesus’ combination of two other Old Testament texts (Mark 12:28-31): Love your God and your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).


Commentary on Psalm 15

James Howell

There are two divergent ways to think about Psalm 15. 

We can regard it from a historical point of view, understanding its place in Israel’s worship life; and we can weigh its content from a theological, even personal perspective. The first is far more pleasant.

A cluster of other Psalms, especially Psalm 24 but also Psalms like 47, 84, or 150, tell us about Israel’s liturgical life, and shed light on Psalm 15. Pilgrims have made the arduous journey in caravans to the Holy City for one of the great festivals. The time draws near for the worshippers to enter the temple precincts. The Ark of the Covenant would be hoisted up high, trumpets would blare, and a Q&A between the priest inside the gate and the crowd pressing to come in would ensue.

Who indeed may abide in God’s tent (a figurative image, left over from the days of the tabernacle in the wilderness)? The priest’s reply underlines the importance of holiness, that God isn’t to be trifled with, that you wash in the ritual bath before you enter this place of sanctity: “Those who walk blamelessly,” and so on. 

Historically this is fascinating. But I wonder what then enabled any one of them to feel they could actually stroll into the place? What pressure is there in these requirements? Walk blamelessly, stand by an oath even if it hurts, do not slander with the tongue, nor reproach their neighbors? We are masters of rancor, and even feel some smug self-righteousness when we blithely point out the woes in other people.

The Psalm says those who loan money at interest can’t come in. If we adhered to this, capitalism would come to a screeching halt! And all these “requirements”? Isn’t God all about mercy and grace? Or at least forgiveness? Who is worthy? No one is worthy — or only Christ himself was worthy.

Perhaps we think Christologically and imagine what Karl Barth might have said — that it is Jesus, bearing our humanity, who can faultlessly enter God’s holy place in our stead, even pioneering the way for us to ride in on his coattails. But perhaps we reassess how thoughtlessly we presume upon the presence of God. We live any old way that suits us — and then dare to come into worship as if all is well? Do the stringent requirements for those who would even step across the threshold tell us to stay away? Or rather to enter as those who know they are guilty, and in dire need of mercy, cleansing, and even healing of heart?

Instead of “Who can enter God’s holy place?” we might even ask, “Who can leave God’s holy place?” Hopefully not those who are no different from the way they were when they walked in the place (as in the old joke about the service ending as the people sing multiple stanzas of “Just as I am,” and some come forward just as they are, and then when it’s over, they exit the place just the way they were).

God’s will, the Torah of the Lord, Jesus’ teachings, the rules of the church: all this should exist, not to keep us in line, or to dole out guilt, and certainly not to function as leverage for the institution to keep itself fed. Divine law, if it is truly divine, is for our well-being; the God who made us and designed the whole order of creation in love knows what will bring joy to us. The Psalm’s last line is its best line: “Those who do these things shall never be moved.”

Stability, not being thrown off balance, able to weather the storm: virtue exists so we might not tremble with anxiety or be blown hither and yon over every little thing. It is only the deeply cultivated life, deliberately and in a disciplined way in sync with God, that can be non-anxious, reliable, deeply rooted. Mark Helprin, in Winter’s Tale, wrote these profound words:

Little men spend their days in pursuit of small things. I know from experience that at the moment of their deaths they see their lives shattered before them like glass … Not so, the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. The world goes this way and that. Ideas are in fashion or not, and those who should prevail are often defeated. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted and uncorruptible. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty, and the strengths by which we may stand, unperturbed, in the storm that comes when seeking God.1

Worship is the womb in which virtues are born, and it is virtue that empowers the worshiper to draw ever closer to God. Mercy is required for such virtue — but these three, virtue, mercy and worship, are how we abide in God’s holy tent.

Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale (NY: Pocket Books, 1983), 252-253.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Mary Hinkle Shore

The reading begins with a reference to “the message of the cross” (NRSV) or the “word of the cross” (RSV).

In Greek, the words are ho logos ho tou staurou. Alexandra Brown points out how curious the phrase would sound, both to Jews and Greeks. “For Jews, the logos was the law and Wisdom … For Greeks, the logos signified the reason behind the cosmic order and the advances of philosophy in understanding that order.”1 Brown concludes, “This ‘logos of the cross’ constitutes a contradiction in terms offensive both to the reasoned and to the religious mind.”

This contradiction gets exactly to Paul’s point. The message about the cross is confounding to the wisest of human minds. Yet what appears as foolishness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23) is really “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).

Still, it is far-fetched. This would be especially true for people like the Corinthians. If Paul’s discussion of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8 can be taken to represent them more or less fairly, some of them at least were impressed with their own knowledge. Paul knows he cannot win an argument based on who has the more reasonable position, so he speaks of God’s wisdom as only really making sense in an entirely different realm. He contrasts “the wisdom of the world” with “the foolishness of our proclamation,” with the advantage going to God’s foolishness.

At first Paul’s argument sounds like a series of baseless assertions. Paul agrees that the message of the cross is, from any normal human vantage point, foolishness, but nonetheless asserts God’s wisdom in it. The text seems to go around in circles: if you think the cross is foolishness, your conclusion just proves that you are perishing.

After wandering in assertion for a while, Paul makes two publicly accessible arguments. First, Paul directs his readers back to the prophets. This upending of human wisdom on God’s part is not without precedent! In fact, it is arguably in character for God. Through the prophet Isaiah, God had said, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (Isaiah 29:14).

A God who used the nations to execute judgment on Israel — and then stopped the nations in their tracks — could certainly use the cross and Paul’s preaching of the same to enact salvation for Jew and Greek alike. In the distant past, God’s wisdom was confounding to conventional human wisdom.

So it is also in the recent past. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” Paul says. This begins the second of his arguments in support of the point that God’s wisdom is not the world’s wisdom.

Though we do not know the precise demographic makeup of the Corinthian church, the scholarly consensus follows Wayne Meeks’s conclusion in The First Urban Christians that Paul’s congregations included a mix of social classes with all except people of the very highest and very lowest social locations likely represented. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul does not say, “None of you were wise by human standards,” but rather, “Not many of you. ”

Perhaps a few people in the congregation were wise, powerful, and/or of noble birth. Maybe a few would actually win the wisdom and power game if played according to the world’s rules. But most of them would not, and quite apart from the question of how God might be at work in Christ, Paul’s observations imply that most of the Corinthian congregation — who have themselves not been all that wise or powerful by the world’s standards — should perhaps ask themselves if they really want to play by those rules. If they were to stay firmly planted in the old aeon and its value structures, would they not be seen as foolish for a whole other set of reasons?

David Lose and others talk about preaching as telling the truth twice: preachers tell us the truth in terms of our distance from God’s vision of life for us, and preachers tell us the truth again of God’s work to bridge that distance and raise us up to that life. There is a great foolishness in the Corinthians putting on airs as they seem to be doing, enthralled with their own importance, their own wisdom, strength, knowledge, and so on. The first truth about them is that they are self-impressed little people. I work with a native of the American South who sometimes describes people who are similarly self-impressed by saying, “He thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”

The second truth? “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The three sentences about God’s choosing start out sounding like they are about God’s choice of the Corinthians. As they continue, their referent is not so clear. Is the topic God’s choice of the Corinthians, or God’s choice of the cross?

By the last of the sentences that begin, “God chose … ” the cross and Christ’s death on the cross are again Paul’s focus: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). God’s choices of the Corinthians and of the cross merge until each of them helps to make sense of the other, and both of them look to be in character for God.

God chooses the way God chooses not just to demonstrate the capacity to upend the status quo, as if God were saying by these choices, “I’m bigger than you.” God chooses the foolish/weak/nothing in order to upend the status quo and in order to create life. “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 1:30), and then he describes the life we share with Christ in terms of righteousness, sanctification and redemption.

Each of these experiences — righteousness, sanctification, and redemption — is a window on the upside-down foolish wisdom of God. That is to say, not just at the start of our life in Christ when we receive his righteousness, but throughout it as he works holiness in and through our lives, until even our death is redeemed, God is forever confounding conventional wisdom.


“Apocalyptic Transformation in Paul’s Discourse on the Cross,” Word & World 16 [1996]: 432