Lectionary Commentaries for January 29, 2017
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Karoline Lewis

The chance to preach four Sundays in a row on the Sermon on the Mount may seem to be less an opportunity and more like a burden.

Not unlike the five weeks assigned to the Bread of Life Discourse from John in the season of Pentecost in Year B, this opening speech of Jesus in Matthew might cause the preacher to wonder if what Jesus has to say in this passage is really different each week. Perhaps a step back might offer some perspective.

First things

This is Jesus’ first public act in the book of Matthew. It is worth comparing each of these events in the Gospels because they give us a clue as to both the Christological portrait at stake for that individual writer. That Jesus performs an exorcism in Mark as his inaugural act suggests Mark sees Jesus as the ultimate boundary crosser. Indeed, God tears apart the boundaries that separated God from God’s people, first at Jesus’ baptism and then at Jesus’ crucifixion. That which keeps us apart from God, or, depending on your theology, keeps God at bay is ripped from top to bottom. You either like this God or you don’t, depending on who you need or want God to be.

In Luke, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches a sermon—every intern’s worst nightmare. The sermon is a summary of his what his ministry will be—and for whom. For Luke, Jesus is the savior of the marginalized, the outcast, the unseen. The rejection at Nazareth calls out our unwillingness to imagine God might be for someone other than ourselves. The desire to cast Jesus off a cliff foreshadows the refutation of the disciples by the announcement of the empty tomb as proclaimed by the women. We are just fine with a savior for us but not so much with a savior for those we despise.

In John, the wedding at Cana is a sign of abundance. Turning water into wine, as miraculous as that is, is not really the point. The point is just how much: six jars, twenty-to-thirty gallons each, filled to the brim of the best wine when you least expect. It is a manifestation, an incarnation, if you will, of grace upon grace. That is indeed who Jesus is for John—the very presence of God’s abundant grace.

Which then brings us to Matthew. Who is Jesus for Matthew? The teacher of all righteousness. And whom does he teach? His disciples. This means teaching is important. This means being a disciple is to be the consummate student, a learner. Being a disciple in Matthew demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as teacher.

So, before we get too far into the what of the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to ask about the why—why a sermon, why teaching, why here and now, and why first to the disciples? Answering these questions will direct this first attempt at a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount toward how it might have been experienced by Jesus’ first disciples. Then, you are not just preaching about the Sermon on the Mount, but letting it preach itself. This is one of the oft-unnamed difficulties of this portion of Matthew’s Gospel—you are preaching a sermon on a sermon. The first thing the preacher should do is consider how to let the sermon preach itself rather than explain its potency away.

The purpose of preaching

Sermons are not just content but are intent on creating an experience. Something should happen, and that something should not just be communicating words. What do you think Jesus wanted to have happen with this sermon? What did he want the disciples to experience? So, for each section these next four weeks, attempt to answer this question. What do the Beatitudes do? They don’t just remind the disciples that they are blessed. Jesus wants them to feel that they are blessed.

Why is teaching so important for Jesus? Or, for that matter, why is learning so critical for a life of faith? It’s important to remember that who Jesus is simultaneously reveals who we are. For Matthew, the disciples are students, learners. But that learning cannot happen outside of the realm of promise. You are blessed. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Only with these claims of identity in place can the disciples, can we, live out what Jesus will ask us to do.

The Beatitudes are identifiers of discipleship; characteristics of the faithful; attributes of believers. They are truth-tellings. They name our blessings but also what is at stake in these blessings. This is why this sermon has to be preached here and now to the disciples and not later. They have to know who they are in order to be able hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be. This first sermon has to be delivered to them so that the Great Commission might actually come to fruition.

Being blessed

You are blessed. You have to hear that on the front end. And note that being blessed is not just for the sake of potential joy, but also for the sake of making it through that which will be difficult. Again, these are Jesus’ first words to his disciples. We need to hear in each and every one of the Beatitudes what’s at stake for Jesus and for his ministry.

It’s worth remembering as a preacher that these are texts heard in the season of Epiphany. What difference does that make for preaching them? Going forward, here are potential stages of this section from Matthew—possible phases of manifestation, if you will.

  • Matthew 5:1-12 Who are the Disciples
  • Matthew 5:13-20 The Responsibilities of Discipleship
  • Matthew 5:21-37 Discipleship in Community
  • Matthew 5:38-48 Discipleship in the World

Why stages? Well, to some extent this is at the heart of Epiphany. What is revealed is revealed in its time. A preacher’s job is to tend such revelation.

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 6:1-8

Tyler Mayfield

One of the most well-known half-verses in the Old Testament:

“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV).

These words are etched into stone in the foyer of my church.

The Hebrew is relatively straightforward here. We do not need to parse the nuances of verbs such as “do” or “walk.” We can grasp the biblical concepts of “kindness” and “humility.” In fact, the passage shines because of its simple presentation. People can recite it by heart. Perhaps we could say that it is etched into the hearts of many Christians.

But there is always a danger to familiarity. The familiar can be overlooked or neglected.

We can arrive at a clearer understanding of this passage when we contextualize it within the overall passage. So, let’s examine the whole pericope, all eight verses to see what precedes this familiar, pithy, concluding statement.

First, the passage begins with dispute language in verses 1-2. God and God’s people are contending; God is upset with the people and wishes to argue with them through the prophetic voice of Micah. So, God summons “earthly” observers such as the mountains, hills, and earth’s foundations to listen to this dispute.

God will contend with Israel.

Next, in verses 3-5, God provides a recitation of all the wonderful gifts God has provided. This account, dense with imagery, biblical figures, and place names, recounts God’s action for the sake of Israel. It is a brief salvation history with God playing the role of liberator, savior, and provider.

In summary, God says, “I have something I need to bring to your attention, a controversy I need to voice, so listen up. What exactly have I done wrong? I am constantly saving you so that you will always remember my righteous deeds.” It is interesting that God does not accuse Israel of any explicitly wrongdoing; instead, God delivers a self-defense speech. Perhaps, then, it was the case that the people are the ones who actually had a contention with God, a dispute which is not recorded in this prophetic book. Or perhaps this is God’s expert use of rhetoric to remind the people of past acts of salvation.

Now, it is time for the people to respond to God’s complaint. But they have nothing to say in light of God’s powerful and reassuring speech except to ask questions.

The people do not respond with argumentation. They inquire about proper offerings that might be fitting as a response to God’s saving acts.

Finally, in verses 6-8, the language of dispute is dropped altogether, and we read a series of rhetorical questions. Scholars typically compare these questions to those found in entrance liturgies such as Psalm 15, Psalm 24 (see also Isaiah 33:14-16). They are questions one might find worshippers asking as they make their way to the Temple. The four questions heighten the theological drama by identifying progressively excessive gifts: the first question does not name any particular offering; the second question speaks of year old calves; the third question jumps to thousands of rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil; the final question mentions child sacrifice.

The central issue with all the questions concerns the gift, the sacrifice.

What is it, O God, that you want from us? What do you require? Just tell us your favorite offering, and we will surely sacrifice it — even if it is a rather extreme request.

The last verse of this passage — the one most familiar to us — turns the four questions asked in verses 6-7 away from their focus on the types of offerings and toward a focus on the type of person.

God does not want a specific type of offering. God wants a specific type of person.

The passage culminates with an answer. It may not be the answer the people expect. In fact, it is not the answer they seek. They have focused on offerings — small and large. They have emphasized sacrificial worship to the exclusion of justice and kindness.

The people have rightly considered the nature of their offerings. But God’s concern here is to point out that God requires more than sacrifice when entering God’s presence.

God clarifies what is good. The answer is rather straightforward:

To do justice.

To love kindness.

To walk humbly with your God.

Now that the clarification has been given to us, the more difficult task is to live into these requirements as God’s people. Justice is perhaps not our default operating system. Humility is not second nature.

What actions do these requirements call forth from us as we look into our neighborhoods and cities?  


Commentary on Psalm 15

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 15 is classified generally as a Community Hymn and more specifically as an Entrance Liturgy.

In three movements — Question (verse 1), Response (verses 2-5b), and Promise (verse 5c), the prospective worshiper is schooled in the proper demeanor of those who would enter into the presence of God to worship.

Verse 1 sets the question. “Who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (NRSV). The two words, “abide” and “dwell” are interesting studies. The word translated “abide” is from the Hebrew root gur, which means to “stay as a resident alien, as a foreigner”; the word “dwell” is derived from shakan, meaning to “settle down, be at home.” Whatever these words may have meant in their setting in ancient Israel, they speak volumes to humanity today. We are all “foreigners or resident aliens” when we seek to come into the presence of God, and our hope is to “settle down, be at home” (just for a while) in that presence, that sanctuary.

In order to truly “settle down, be at home,” though, certain things are required of us. And verses 2-5b clearly lay them out. We begin with verses 2 and 3, which scholars suggest is a masterful work of Hebrew poetic parallelism. The verses contain, in three phrases in verse 2 that echo three phrases found in verse 3, the three requisites for entrance into God’s holy space.

The first is the demeanor we evince in our daily conduct — verse 2 begins with “those who walk blamelessly,” and verse 3 opens with “those who do not slander with their tongue” (NRSV). “Walk” comes from the Hebrew root halak, which means “go one’s way, to travel in a certain way,” while “slander” comes from the root ragal, which in its noun form means “foot.” The translation “slander” thus has to do with how ones “foots it” or “treads.”

The second requisite for entrance to God’s holy space in verses 2 and 3 has to do with what we do. In verse 2, the prospective worshiper is described as one who “does what is right,” while in verse 3, we read “who does not evil to their friends.” And the third requisite has to do with what one says. “Speak the truth from the heart” (verse 2b) and “Do not lift up speech against one’s neighbor” (verse 3b).

Verse 4 addresses the issue of discretion — despising (“thinking lightly of/rejecting”) the wicked, but honoring (from the Hebrew kabad, “considering weighty”) those who fear the Lord; and standing by one’s word even when it could bring harm to oneself. Verse 5 continues with a concern for the welfare of those less fortunate than oneself. The one worthy of entering into God’s presence does not lend money at an interest rate that the one owing the money cannot possibly meet (usury), and one does not testify against an innocent person at any cost, at any personal gain to oneself.

The admonitions of Psalm 15:2-5b should not be understood, though, as a “check the box” list. Do or don’t do all of these things and you have “fulfilled all righteousness.” Rather, as one Old Testament scholar suggests, the admonitions of Psalm 15 should be read as a “picture, not a prescription” — as examples of the conduct one who is worthy to come into the presence of God.

The message of Psalm 15 is the same that we read in the other Lectionary Texts for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12 are familiar passages. Micah tells that God does not want burnt offering or animal sacrifices; God wants justice, kindness, and a humble walk before God. Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel talks about the make-up of the Kingdom of Heaven — those who are meek, those who are merciful, those who are peacemakers.

The message of Psalm 15, and of Micah 6 and Matthew 5, seems to be to be that God is not so much interested in whether we get the ritual right — the invocation, the litany, the music, the sermon, as God is interested in whether our attitude and actions are right as we enter into the sanctuary.

Two passages, one in the book of Leviticus and the other in the book of Matthew, are illustrative of the words of Psalm 15. Leviticus, chapters 1-6, is a detailed discussion of the various offerings and sacrifices the people could offer to the Lord at the sanctuary. Chapter 6 outlines the steps that one must take if they wish to bring an offering to God to atone for any wrong that they have done to another:

  • First, one must recognize one’s guilt — that a person has been wronged/has been hurt (Leviticus 6:3)
  • Second, one must realize the guilt — I did the wrong/I hurt/I harmed (Leviticus 6:4)
  • Third, one must seek restoration — I want to make this right; I know I have done wrong (Leviticus 6:4)
  • Fourth, one must repay, in whatever form is appropriate, to the one wronged the full cost plus 1/5=20% to make right the wrong (Leviticus 6:5)
  • Fifth, then and only then, one can go to the priest with a sacrifice to atone for the intentional sin (Leviticus 6:6)
  • Sixth, then the priest will make atonement for the intentional sin (Leviticus 6:7).

In like manner, Jesus, in Matthew 5, says: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (verses 23-24).

Those who can sojourn/live as a foreigner and sit down for a while in the presence of God are not necessarily those who have read their Sunday School lesson for the week, dressed in their Sunday best, know the words to all the hymns, and bring the sweet rolls for coffee after the service. No, the inside is more important than the outside. Did you speak the truth (Psalm 15:2); did you not slander (Psalm 15:3) or “lift up” words against your neighbor (Psalm 15:3); did you stand by your word (Psalm 15:4); and did you not speak ill of any innocent person just for your own gain (Psalm 15:5)? Contemplate the prerequisites, and then enter in!

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).1

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.”2 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.


1. Commentary first published on February 2, 2014

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