Lectionary Commentaries for January 30, 2011
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Elizabeth Shively

The familiarity of the beatitudes presents the preacher with a challenge.

Our hearers may have pre-conceived ideas of what they are about, or skepticism of our ability to say anything fresh about them. The beatitudes are pervasive in popular culture, from politics to pop psychology. The spirit and religion message board on “Oprah.com” suggests that it might be enlightening “if we could each of us look within ourselves” and “pick one [beatitude] that showed us who we believed ourselves to be.” If we look carefully at Jesus’ words, however, we find that they are much more than moral platitudes or mottos to live by.

The beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ teachings. Matthew places the Sermon at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, emphasizing that Jesus is the authoritative teacher of God’s people. Jesus breaks into the public arena proclaiming, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). He calls his first disciples from the task of fishing for fish to the task of fishing for people (verses 18-22).

Then, he shows the disciples just what this new kind of fishing looks like by preaching the good news of the kingdom of heaven to people and manifesting its power by healing every kind of disease and affliction (verses 23-25).  The presence of this kingdom of heaven liberates. Then, Jesus climbs a mountain with the crowd he has so excited and sits down in the posture of a teacher encircled by his newly-called disciples. They are the primary targets of his instruction in the principles of life in the kingdom of heaven. 

A key principle of embracing this life is “blessedness.” This is a refrain that runs throughout verses 5-10: those are blessed who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are persecuted. The word “blessed” does not mean “holy,” and neither does it mean “happy” in the sense of being in a good mood. Rather, the word, “blessed” refers to a fortunate state of life. Jesus is saying that those who are poor in spirit are fortunate! It may surprise us that he speaks these words about those whose present circumstances seem so unfortunate.

Jesus can speak such words because he is revealing a kingdom perspective.  The first and the last of the nine beatitudes extend his proclamation of the good news by applying the presence of the kingdom of heaven to the poor and persecuted (verses 3, 10). These beatitudes act like bookends for the rest of them, indicating that the kingdom of heaven is the controlling concept of the section. It is so because those who possess the kingdom are “blessed.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (verse 3).  “Blessed are those who are persecuted… for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (verse 10).

The verbs in these two verses are in the present tense: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The kingdom that Jesus proclaims infiltrates the present condition of the unfortunate and transforms it. Jesus had begun his public ministry announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Later, when Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and heal, he tells them to make the same announcement as they go (10:1, 5-8). The kingdom of heaven breaks into the world with the words and work of Jesus. 

The present conditions of the unfortunate are variations on the same theme.  The language of each beatitude reflects Old Testament language: Those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness suffer because of their faithfulness to God, and they trust in God to vindicate them (Isaiah 61:1-2; Psalm 24:3-4; Psalm 37, especially verse 11; 42:1-2). While those who oppress God’s people may be fortunate for a moment, they who trust the Lord will be fortunate forever. Jesus calls those who would be his followers to the same radical commitment and hope.

After listing the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (verse 12). The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who suffer because of their faithfulness to Jesus. But Jesus is also calling them to follow his own way, since he himself will suffer for his faithfulness to God, trusting that God will vindicate him.

While Jesus affirms the present experience of the kingdom of heaven in verses 3 and 10, he promises future vindication for the unfortunate in verses 4-9.  While the verbs in the second half of the beatitudes in verses 3 and 10 are in the present tense, the verbs in the second half of the beatitudes verses 4-9 are in the future tense.

The promise of future vindication does not mean, however, that the focus is entirely future. Jesus insists that God has the final word, bringing assurance into the present. This is why he can say, “Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus gives his followers eyes to see that the future is certain and this transforms the present.

Jesus calls us to join a radical kingdom. He gives us a radical vision to match, that the kingdom of heaven infiltrates our present. We can continue fishing for people, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom at great cost to ourselves, fighting oppressive powers in Jesus’ name. We can suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, with the assurance that God has the last word. When we see people receiving the word of God, and finding healing and freedom in Jesus’ name we can announce, “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” 

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 6:1-8

Amy G. Oden

Micah prophesies during the second half of the 8th century BCE in Judah.

The Back Story (or Historical Context)
He speaks in a context with no shortage of religious people. In fact, Micah describes widespread religiosity where people, especially religious leaders, are making a public show of how religious they are with loud lip service to God (Micah 3). It appears that business-as-usual religion has kept religious leaders self-satisfied and the powerful in power. For a messenger of God to enter this scene and proclaim judgment against the faithful must have been quite a shock.

Called on the Cosmic Carpet
In the opening verses, God lodges a legal case against Israel, calling upon all of creation to act as the jury. The mountains and foundations of the earth will hear God’s charges and Israel’s pleas. This is no petty squabble but set within a cosmic framework.

We are told that “the Lord has a controversy with his people.” We don’t get a list of transgressions in these verses, but earlier, chapter 3 lays out a host of sins and later verses in chapter 6 supply specifics: “your wealthy are full of violence, your inhabitants speak lies” (verse 12).

We hear God’s plaintive repetition, “O my people,” in verses 3 and 5, as God tries to understand what has gone wrong. As God reviews the divine-human relationship so far, there is implied judgment of the people as contrasted to God’s faithfulness. We get a salvation history of sorts, where God enumerates “the saving acts of the Lord” (verses 4-5):

  • God delivered them from slavery in Egypt
  • gave them leaders (Moses, Aaron, Miriam)
  • blessed them through the foreign priest Balaam even against his own king’s wishes
  • and brought them into the promised land (from Shittim to Gilgal).

Each of these acts is a full story in its own right, and each story reveals the chronic unfaithfulness of the people. These brief two verses serve to remind the people who this God is. This is the God who hears the cries of the people and brings them out of slavery. This is the God who will use even the outsider to bring blessings. This is the God who shows compassion and mercy when the people fall. Even the people’s idolatry and injustice cannot prevent this God from acting. This is the God who is faithful no matter what. The entire creation stands witness to this God made manifest in these acts.

The People Reply
Now the people reply (verses 6-7). The question “with what shall I come before the Lord?” is tantamount to an admission of guilt. There is no attempt to counter God’s claims, and no evidence is brought forth to defend themselves from God’s accusations.  The people quickly revert to familiar formulae: sacrificial offerings to make up for their transgressions. This response only reinforces the pattern of showy religiosity that Micah has already condemned, especially from leaders who look to their own interests (3: 11). Micah would expect such false leaders to turn first to conspicuous acts of sacrifice, as though the problem is appeasing God rather than changing their own behavior.  Micah makes it clear that there will be no more business-as-usual in the religion department without a change of heart and life. 

The go-to response here is to appease God through a form of score-keeping that tries to put a price tag on God’s mercy.  What payment will it take to get God off our backs? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? My firstborn? How can we even the scoreboard? But Micah isn’t buying it. We can’t just write a check.

No More Business-as-Usual
Micah contrasts this knee-jerk score-keeping to the path God has already given, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good” (verse 8). The entire Torah has already given God’s people the path of life. Moreover, Micah stands in a line of prophets who have reminded the people, over and over, of this path. Micah offers a summation of what God requires, at once more simple and more difficult than keeping ritual practices: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind. On an individual and social scale, in ways large and small, this is a way of life. Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life, Micah tells us. We cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice. We cannot send checks for disaster relief and avoid examining the lifestyles that contribute, at least in part, to some natural disasters. We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles. We cannot confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday.

Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and the world God loves. “Walking humbly with God” means knowing our bent to self-righteousness. We cannot “play church” or frame our religious life as a game where we keep God in check by performing prescribed duties. The life of faith is indeed a walk that reorients heart and life.

A Caution
It is easy from these familiar verses in Micah to set up the false dichotomy between ritual practice and genuine faith, between piety and social justice, or between “being religious” and “being spiritual” to use a common refrain.  Nowhere does Micah tell people to stop observing ritual practices or to stop being religious. The problem is not religion in itself. The problem is using ritual practice to excuse ourselves from the divine demands of justice and mercy. Equally troublesome is the opposite, excusing ourselves from communal practices of prayer and worship on the grounds of social justice work. Either extreme fails to be whole.

We should also be wary of another common misuse of this verse, namely, to excuse one from any corporate faith at all. The emphasis on “walking humbly with my God,” in verse 8 can become the manifesto of privatized religion, a church of one.


Commentary on Psalm 15

James K. Mead

The opening verse of Psalm 15, asking who can be admitted to worship at the tabernacle/temple, makes for a daunting introduction to this “entrance liturgy” psalm.1

On one level, such questions may seem as remote to us as those asked of grail seekers at “the bridge of death” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or even the three tests of lethal cunning in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They strike us as being from a time and place far removed from the welcoming, seeker-sensitive churches of today. Followers of Jesus, whose faith is shaped by New Testament assurances of divine acceptance in Christ, might even be mildly dismissive of the exclusive tone of this Israelite psalm.

On another level, however, the response provided in the remaining verses of Psalm 15 forces even twenty first century readers to ponder how we reflect the psalmist’s expectations. We share more common ground with the biblical author than we might imagine, at least insofar as the psalm does not prescribe ritual acts of self-consecration; rather, as Derek Kidner writes, “the Lord’s reply searches the conscience.”2

A helpful way to think about Psalm 15 as a resource for worship and preaching is suggested by a Ronald Clements essay.3  Whatever may have been the original setting and function of questions about “abiding in Yahweh’s tent” and “dwelling on Yahweh’s holy hill” (verse 1), the current form of the psalm unites the liturgical interests in the question with the ethical instruction of the answer. Therefore, what may initially seem to be an expression of Israelite piety concerned with ceremonial acceptability now moves the hearer to contemplate the connection between one’s worship and one’s choices in the world. The questions of verse 1 are, after all, addressed to God, not to worshipers; they function rhetorically as an opportunity to challenge God’s people to adopt a “way of life that shows wholehearted respect for the torah of the Lord God.”4

Ritual, Righteousness, and the Decalogue
The Hebrew Bible as a whole represents the tension felt in Israelite society over the relationship between the worship one offers to God and the actions one takes with respect to neighbor. No single text in the Old Testament ever completely resolves this tension, though a strong case can be made that the prophetic witness certainly directed Israelites away from legalistic ritual toward obedience to God’s word in general (1 Samuel 15:22, “surely, to obey is better than sacrifice”) and concern for social justice in particular (Isaiah 1:11-17; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

Moreover, the Ten Commandments themselves exhibit what Clements calls a “marriage between cultic duty and moral demand.”5  Rather than replacing concerns for ritual holiness, therefore, Old Testament theology invites Yahweh’s worshipers to celebrate their relationship with God from within a life that exhibits love of neighbor. This is certainly part of the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel lection for today (Mark 7), as well as in James’s instruction about “the law of liberty” in the epistle reading (James 1:17-27).

Preachers will find some commentators suggesting links to the Ten Commandments, insofar as certain ways of structuring Psalm 15’s content, lead to a list of ten behavioral admonitions. The connection is attractive and offers interesting homiletical possibilities, but the arguments for any direct influence between the Decalogue and the psalm are not compelling. One might hold out for a mild echo of the Ten Commandments, but the psalm’s content moves in a different direction from the Decalogue’s interests;6  and it may be that the psalm’s structure provides more than one accurate interpretation.7

Regardless of the number of distinct statements, the economy of language is stunning, with only fifty three Hebrew words compared to the NRSV’s one hundred and two words. The psalmist wanted a memorable and trustworthy guide for social conduct, and sermons can present the psalm as a living portrait of the kind of life Moses called for in the Old Testament lection for this Sunday (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9). Observing Yahweh’s words will indeed display Israel’s “wisdom and discernment” to all the peoples (Deuteronomy 4:6).

Wisdom Instruction and Community Life
What then shall we do with the specific claims the psalm places upon us? Overall, we affirm that the instructions of verses 2-5 are not conditions for entering worship but descriptions of living in a community guided by wisdom. The active participles in verse 2 (the walker, the doer, the speaker) reinforce this notion by emphasizing qualities of continued practice, not achieved righteousness.

Of particular concern are what people do with their speech (verses 3-4) and how they handle their money (verse 5), but these are not stated as general principles as they might be found in the Book of Proverbs. They are instead contextualized in terms of the effect our words and finances have on “friends” and “neighbors” (verse 3). Even when other persons are not mentioned by name, their presence is implied as the recipients of an oath (verse 4) or a loan (verse 5).8

To bring the message full circle, the psalm is describing the kind of community within which God dwells. When the psalms were being collected in the post-exilic era, many diaspora Jews would never experience Temple worship. Psalm 15 encouraged them that communities of honesty and justice, wherever they may be, were themselves dwelling places of God.9  In this regard, verse 1 of the NRSV, with its translation “dwell,” misses the nuance of the Hebrew verb sākan, which might be translated “to tabernacle.” For Christians, this concept evokes the confidence that it is not merely we who dwell with God but God who has chosen to “tabernacle” with us (John 1:14).10

1See P. Craigie on Hermann Gunkel’s form-critical designation, in Psalms 1-50  (Word Books, 1983), 150. This classification is only partially reflective of the psalm’s final form and function.  The psalm may not, in fact, have ever been about entrance requirements.
2D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973), 80-81.
3R. Clements, “Worship and Ethics: A Re-examination of Psalm 15,” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible (JSOT Press, 1999), 78-94.
4Ibid., 90.
5Ibid., 84.
6W. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 5:149-150.
7P. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Fortress, 1986), 44-45.
8The text of v. 4c is problematic, but the sense given it by the NRSV (“stand by their oath even to their hurt”) is sound.
9Clements, 90-93.
10M. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 55.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

J.R. Daniel Kirk

In last week’s reading, Paul took the Corinthians to task because the very fact of their division is a denial of the gospel.

The Economy of the Cross
In this week’s passage, he shows how the particular divisions plaguing Corinth can be given the same diagnosis. And here is where things might start to get a little more personal.

Paul contends that the gospel has a way of taking all of our expectations and turning them on their head. God did not send us a messiah so that Christians can outpace the world in its own game. Instead, God’s work comes as a genuine surprise to the watching world. Where the world’s measuring stick would indicate “folly” or “weakness,” the gospel proclaims (to those with ears to hear) “wisdom” and “power.”

As Paul begins his defense of the “foolishness of the gospel,” he places his interpretive key front and center. It is the cross that is foolishness and weakness to outsiders. Because Christ crucified is the way that God has acted to save the world, Paul insists that our normal ways of assessing smart practices and displays of power are prone to deceive us. Is the work of God powerful? Yes, Paul insists, but this power will only be seen as foolishness and weakness to others (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The Revelation of Israel’s God
In order to understand what Paul is up to, we have to get behind a couple of his assumptions. The first, and most important, is that the God of Israel is at work in the cross of Christ. The second is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the ultimate revelation of this God, and of why what the Old Testament says about this God is, in fact, true.

Isaiah had prophesied before the exile that the vision of the prophets would be like a sealed document. Unreadable. Undecipherable. “The wisdom of the wise will perish” (Isaiah 29:14, 1 Corinthians 1:19).

In our culture we have a tendency to expect that Christianity will come alongside and reaffirm many of the ways of looking at the world around us that are otherwise embedded in our culture. This passage pulls back the curtain so as to expose the inner workings of the Kingdom of God. It allows us to see that God’s ways of working in the world are so entirely unexpected that they can only be recognized as powerful and wise by those who have been given the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10).

Wisdom, Power, and the Cross
Paul takes hold of two categories for greatness in the ancient world, wisdom and power, and turns them on their heads. In all likelihood, these are roughly equivalent to the respective claims that the “Apollos party” and the “Cephas party” are making for themselves. Rather than attempt to redeem these categories, Paul simply claims that worldly understanding and worldly power are the wrong tools for apprehending the work of God.

The only way to know that the execution of a pretender to the Roman throne was, in fact, the means of God’s salvation of the world, is through proclamation. This “foolishness” is the means God has chosen to save (1 Corinthians 1:21).

It might be possible to translate “the foolishness of preaching” as the act of preaching itself, but the NRSV wisely steers us toward another interpretation when it says that God saves “through the foolishness of our proclamation” (1 Corinthians 1:21). The point is not simply that “preaching” is how God saves, but that what is preached is “the word of the cross,” as Paul makes clear in verse 23.

Once again, we should take stock of how differently Paul approaches his society than we often approach ours. Rather than showing the world how much better God is at wielding the kind of power it expects, or the sort of wisdom it demands, Paul proclaims the cross as an alternative means of enacting both wisdom and power. The gospel turns the economy of the world on its head.

Fools Made Wise
Last week we saw how the gospel message and our own participation in it are inseparable. The same move is made in verse 26 as Paul makes the transition from the message itself to the Corinthians who have believed it.

In fact, though many of our modern translations omit the word, verse 26 begins with “for,” telling us that Paul intends for this part of his argument to furnish the proof of what he has just said. How do we know that God’s folly and weakness outpace the wisdom and power of people (verse 25)? Because the Christian community in Corinth, those defined by their acceptance of the gospel message, were not mighty, wise, and noble when they came to faith. Their own testimony is proof of how different God’s ways are than the ways of the world.

In all of this, Paul continues to argue that being divided denies the gospel of Christ. Flocking to teachers who bear the marks of worldly power and wisdom undermines the economy of the kingdom, in which God’s wisdom and power so outpace their human counterparts that defining ourselves by wise and powerful leaders is shown up to be a denial of the gospel itself.

What, then, is power? It is God, by God’s own doing, uniting people to Christ (verses 27-30). Christ is wisdom and power (verse 30). Union with the crucified Christ, then, is to play out in all aspects of the church’s life.

Realizing that Christ is the substance of everything we could want, the wind is taken from the sails of any argument that would draw us to a person in a display of party spirit within the church. We do not boast in earthly leaders, we boast only in the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 31).