Lectionary Commentaries for February 6, 2011
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

Emerson Powery

The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the classic authoritative teacher.

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is Jesus’ masterpiece.  In it, readers can find most of the significant themes relevant to the remainder of Matthew’s story about Jesus.  As Jesus begins, the audience is apparently his closest disciples (5:1); when he ends, the audience is much broader (7:28). The primary theme of the sermon is righteousness or justice (dikaiosune); the content that follows will give the specifics.  Jesus’ teaching opens with the beatitudes (5:3-11).  They point out God’s favor toward humanity rather than God’s demand.  They are not the expected cultural categories: people who mourn are recognized favorably.  Developing an active strategy in peacemaking is hardly popular in first-century life under Rome. The sermon closes with God’s demand to obey Jesus’ words (7:24-29), that is, the new Torah.  God grants favor (salvation), but demands the very lives of the ones who follow.

Matthew 5:13-16
In the Gospel narratives, Jesus’ short pithy saying about “salt” appears in different contexts in each Gospel (cf. Matt 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34). In each instance, salt is a common image Jesus used for painting a picture of how he hoped his followers would act and be in the world.

The link between “salt” and “earth” is not so clear.  The genitive construction may refer to the “earth’s salt,” to be used for its (i.e., the earth’s) good. It could also refer to the salt that comes from the earth; that is, the earth is the source of this seasoning (cf. Job 6:6), purifier (cf. 2 Kings 2:19-23), and preservative.  The last function makes the most sense.  Whatever function Jesus had in mind, in all cases salt is not an element useful to itself.  Its value comes in its application on other things.  So, likewise the followers of Jesus are called to exist for others.  Yet, Jesus warns that salt may become (literally) “foolish” (moraine), that is, losing its taste or value. 

In the same way, light functions in order to allow humans to see.  [In the contemporary Western/Northern world, it is difficult to imagine a world without light.  When it was nightfall, in the ancient world, it was dark: in darkness, “we grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes” (Isaiah 59:10).] In Jesus’ usage, the light is not simply to allow others to see whatever they wish but it is for others to witness the acts of justice that Jesus’ followers perform.  Beyond that, it allows the audience to recognize the cause of these actions, the God of heaven. 

The images of “salt” and “light” evoke the imagination of Jesus’ listeners and may represent more than one meaning.  Jesus gives them more specific substance in what follows.
Matthew 5:17-20
Just as “salt” and “light” relate to the functions of Jesus’ faithful followers in the world, so Jesus’ emphasis on the law is about doing good.  In this sermon, Jesus explores the meaning of the law for his contemporary reality, not desiring for its discontinuation (cf. 5:17). To “abolish” (kataluo) something is usually to tear it apart, to loosen it; it is the opposite of “building up” (oikodomeo). In Matthew’s Gospel, the verb is commonly used in reference to the temple (cf. Matthew 24:2; 26:61; 27:40). Unlike the Law, Jesus exclaims about the temple, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (24:2). The Common English Bible is even more descriptive: “Everything will be demolished.” Jesus claims that this was not his intention with respect to the Law.

But Jesus does not say that he has come to “build up” the law but rather to “fulfill” it.  “To fulfill” (pleroo) is frequently understood as “bringing something to an end” or “to complete (something)” but that does not quite fit the immediate context.  Jesus, especially Matthew’s Jesus, was a law-abiding Jew.  But he chooses to “fulfill” the law in the sense of interpreting their meaning for contemporary practice. 

What laws was he talking about? When Jesus says he will not abolish, he clearly does not mean he will not re-interpret:  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times … but I say to you.”

One main thrust of the sermon is to point out how difficult this new obedience is: “…your righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  Jesus’ comparison is illogical if interpreters maintain traditional, negative descriptions of the scribes and the Pharisees.  When we think of the Pharisees, if the first thought that comes to mind is “hypocrites” or “self-righteous/sanctimonious person” (from the first definition given in the Webster’s Online Dictionary), then Jesus’ comparison is not a challenge at all.  Rather, we must recognize the positive influence of Pharisees over the broader first-century Jewish community. 

Who were the Pharisees? What type of influence did they have on the population? They shared many basic beliefs with Jesus.  Both believed that the Law should be applied to all areas of life.  One distinction was that the Pharisees believed in a two-fold law: written and oral.  Jesus apparently did not value the “oral law” (cf. Matthew 15:1-20).  Both believed in negotiating the theological tension of divine providence and human free will.  Both believed in the general resurrection, future rewards and punishments, and the activity of angels and demons in the world.  According to Josephus, the first-century historian and Pharisee himself, the Pharisees “cultivate harmonious relations with the community” (War.II.166) and receive respect from the community because of their virtuous lives (Ant.XVIII.15). Jesus’ followers must be more committed to God’s justice in the world than these prominent leaders.

Summary for Preaching
Though the thrust of 5:13-20 is on the actions of this “higher righteousness” that a light may make clear (e.g., 5:16), the intent behind the action is equally (more?) important (cf. 5:21-22, 27-8, 38-9, 43-4; 7:12!).  Interpreters spend a lot of time and effort–as I do here–trying to figure out Jesus’ meaning of the images of salt and light.  More important is the context of those images for Jesus. Who are ‘salt’ of the earth? They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world.  Who are ‘light’? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.

First Reading

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

Amy G. Oden

This final section of Isaiah, known as “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), is written to the residents of Jerusalem during and after Israel’s return in 539 BCE. 

The back story (or historical context)
Taken as a whole book, Isaiah has addressed and tried to explain the Babylonian exile the Israelites had been under for 50 years, within the scope of a divine plan of judgment and restoration. This week’s reading resounds with instruction for people who have returned to rebuild their homeland. In the midst of joyful return, God issues judgment, and the prophet shouts as a trumpet to this indictment.

Same old, same old
Indeed, the people seem to believe they are doing all the right things and that it is God who has not been keeping faith (verses 2-3). They are genuinely confused. They think that by fasting they will please this God and bring favor. Indeed, they have been formed in this ancient practice, and instructed that it is a pious act to fast and humble oneself before God. It must have been a shock to hear the prophet’s strong rebuke of these faithful acts. How could God not be pleased?

The prophet interrupts their claims to piety by calling for a series of behaviors we recognize as themes throughout the prophets: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to share what we have with those who have not, to bring the homeless into one’s house, to give clothing and shelter to the naked, to reconcile with one’s family, to help the afflicted. These are more than one time actions. These are behaviors with broad social consequences, actions that will restructure relationships. God’s desire is not for singular, pious acts, but for a whole cloth dismantling of unjust relationships.

What kind of fast?
Instead of the traditional fast days, “the fast that I choose,” says God, is a whole new way of life. Isaiah reframes fasting as a practice. It is no longer the periodic fast days that serve to punctuate ongoing life. Instead, fasting is a new set of relationships within ongoing life. The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one’s privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out.

The fasting God seeks requires and promises much more. The “if-then” pattern of verses 8-12 sets forth the consequences of such a fast. If the people choose the fast God sets before them, then they will have the blessing they seek: light, healing, help, protection, satisfying of needs, and, most centrally, the presence and guidance of God among them. The people, individually and corporately, cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other. One’s piety is not disconnected from the rest of everyday life. When right relationship is pursued, God is among the people, “Here I am.” The glory and holiness of God is made manifest in this kind of godly fast.

God-people partnership
We are often uneasy about such conditional “if-then” statements. Imagine, however, if the prophet said to the people, “There’s really nothing you can do toward your healing, wholeness, and the companionship of God. They just happen or they don’t, and it doesn’t matter what you do.” Such a dismissal of their agency as God’s covenant people would leave them more helpless and less accountable. Isaiah’s “if-then” language serves to include the people as actual moral agents in their relationship with God. The consequences of their moral choices affect this God. God is not a lone ranger, acting in isolation. No. This God expects a partnership with restored and restorative people. The people are participants in God’s life, agents in God’s desires for them.

This is especially true for residents faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the city and community following the ravages of exile.  The people among the first generation of return, are fighting over who should rule with factions grabbing for power. All the while, these same leaders pray loudly and fast in false humility.

It would surely have been easy to believe that simply residing in Jerusalem, the holy city, made the citizens holy. It was equally tempting to believe that performing holy acts, like fasting and prayer, make one holy. Isaiah’s challenge shakes them from these comfortable religious assumptions.  We, too, are prone to think that proximity to holy things (church, Bible, sacraments, pastor) makes us holy. This is, of course, idolatry. The only proximity that matters is our faithfulness to God which, Isaiah points out, is manifest in our faithfulness to the way of life God has provided. Therein lays our partnership and any hope of righteousness.

Throughout Advent and Epiphany images of darkness and light are central. God’s inbreaking is marked by light. This week’s reading uses this absolute contrast of darkness and light to describe what happens when the people allow this God to break into their lives.  In verse 3, the people accuse God of not seeing their piety, while they are the ones in the darkness of gloom, unable to see God’s present work. However, once the people partner with God’s fast, “Your light will break forth” (verse 8), and “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (verse 10).

We’ve been hearing about incarnation and God-with-us throughout Advent and Epiphany. Lectionary passages during Epiphany tell us something about this God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. “Here I am” (verse 9) is declaration of the very presence of God among the people, as they participate in God’s purposes. God’s “Here I am” stands in tandem with Isaiah’s earlier “Here I am, Lord. Send me” (6:8), to confirm the partnership of God with God’s people. Isaiah reminds us that this is a God who a) wants more than a formal relationship with the people, b) expects us to be partners in bringing forth God’s purposes and c) is responsive to our choices. The good news is that God calls us, again and again, into God’s own life.


Commentary on Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 112, a Wisdom Psalm, provides instruction in right living and right faith in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament.

It, like Psalm 111, is a succinct acrostic, with each of its twenty-lines beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 111 celebrates God’s mighty deeds on behalf of the people, and Psalm 112 offers instruction for response to God by the people. One scholar observes that Psalm 111 is “theology,” while Psalm 112 is “anthropology.” Psalm 112 may be outlined as follows:

Verse 1a: A Call to Praise
Verses 1b-3: The Praise of the One Who Reverences (NRSV, “fears”) the Lord
Verse 4: The Fate of the Upright Ones
Verses 5-9: The Deeds of the One who Reverences (NRSV, “fears”) the Lord
Verse 10: The Fate of the Wicked Ones

The psalm begins with “hallelujah,” and is part of a group of psalms (Psalm 111-118), in which the word “hallelujah” occurs repeatedly at the beginning and end. Two translation issues present themselves as the reader enters the acrostic body of Psalm 112.

First, the psalm begins, in the NRSV, “Happy are those who fear the LORD,” and in the NIV, “Blessed is the man . . .” The word translated “happy” or “blessed” is ‘ashre, whose basic meaning has to do with walking in a prescribed path and not wavering off the path. While “happy” and “blessed” are good translations of the Hebrew word, a better rendering might be “content.” The person who walks along the path prescribed by God can rest in a sense of contentedness that they are following the words of God faithfully.

Second, verse one states that “contentedness” comes to the one who “fears the LORD.” “Fear” is a very good translation of the Hebrew word yara’. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the base instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word actually encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, honor.” It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its base, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.  

Verses 2-3a outline the rewards for the one who “reverences the LORD” and “delights in the commandments.” That person will have mighty, upright, and blessed descendants and a house in which contain riches and wealth. The words of these verses echo in many ways the promises given by God to Abram in Genesis 12, 13, and 15–descendants, land, house and blessing. 

Verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 112 evince strong parallels with verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 111. Yahweh is the subject of 111:3-4’s words of thanks:

Full of honor and majesty is his work,,
and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the LORD is gracious and merciful.

The righteous person is the subject of 112:3-4’s wisdom words:

Riches and wealth are in that person’s house,
and that one’s righteousness endures for all time.
A light has shone forth in the darkness for the upright ones,
gracious and merciful and righteous.1

Just as the righteousness of God endures for all time, so does the righteousness of the “content” person of Psalm 112.  The basic meaning of righteousness includes the ideas of “a sense of right,” “correct order,” “being just,” or “being true,” and, in the Hebrew Scriptures, has more to do with right actions than with right states of mind (see Genesis 38, for example). 
In verse 4a, the “content” person is promised a light in the darkness. While it is not clear as to what the “light” refers, nor does verse 4b have a clear subject, the reader may be permitted to equate the light with Yahweh, who is described in 111:4b with the same words that describe the light in 112:4b–“gracious and merciful.” 

Verses 5-9 describe the actions and demeanor of the “content” person of Psalm 112. In verse 5a, the person is gracious (hanan) and lends to others (lavah).  The Hebrew root hanan carries a basic meaning of “an aesthetically pleasing presentation or aspect of someone or something,” or “the pleasing impression made upon one individual by another.” Lavah indicates a connectedness to others, as results when one lends to or borrows from another.  In 5b, we read that the “content” person holds words in judgment, being slow to speak words of praise or condemnation. 

Verse 6 acts as something of an interlude for this portion of the psalm. Here the reader learns that the person– now called “the righteous one”– with the character traits that have been described in verse 5 and will be further described in verses 7-9a will not stumble and will be for all time a memorial. The verse is strikingly parallel to Psalm 111:4’s words, which state that Yahweh is a memorial because of his wondrous acts. 

Verses 7-9a continue with a description of the “content/righteous” person.  Despite potential danger from “a bad hearing” and oppressors, this one is not afraid, having a heart that is established and steady; in fact, here is one who reaches out the hand and gives to the needy.   When the apostle Paul wants to encourage the church at Corinth to contribute financially to the impoverished church in Jerusalem, he quotes Psalm 112:9 as an example of a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:9).  The final two cola of verse 9 offer a concluding refrain in praise of the “content/righteous” person. 

Verse 10, in true “wisdom” fashion, contrasts the fate of the wicked one, with the fate of the righteous one.  While a light will shine forth in the darkness for the upright ones (verse 4b), the desire of the wicked ones will perish (verse 10c).

Psalms 111 and 112 are a summary statement of what faith is all about:  who God is and what humans must do in response to God.  In a rich intertwining of language and metaphor, the “content” person of Psalm 112 partners with the God of Psalm 111, working together to achieve righteousness– right living, correct order, and truth– in this world.

1This is the author’s own translation.  The NRSV renders the singular pronouns in Psalm 112 as plurals in order to achieve more gender-neutral language.  But the singularity of the “content” person is important for a proper interpretation of this psalm.

Second Reading

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

J.R. Daniel Kirk

In this week’s reading, Paul continues to explore the paradox of the gospel message.

As he describes the gospel message, his own ministry, and the wisdom of God, Paul surprises the Corinthians, and us, by the way in which each helps interpret the other.

Paul’s Message and Paul’s Ministry
Verses 1-2 recall Paul’s tactic when arriving at Corinth: he was proclaiming the mystery of God, but not “in lofty words or wisdom.” Why didn’t Paul use lofty words or wisdom? Because (verse 2) he chose instead to know only Christ crucified.

Paul is not reveling in the idea that he only had one thing to say. Instead, to a church rallying to the glories of worldly wisdom, Paul wants to show that the message of the cross demands a particular kind of ministry–a cruciform (cross-shaped) ministry.

Paul’s strategy is not unusual to us. We often will talk about how a particular person is a “hypocrite” for failing to live up to the standards of the Christian message. But the measure by which Paul takes stock of his ministry cuts against everything that we too often take for granted.

When Paul says he was with them in weakness, fear, and trembling, he is drawing their attention to the type of ministry that accurately embodies the cross of Christ. If the cross is the message, then ministering with integrity means that the messenger will look weak and despised in the eyes of the world–only to have the power of the Spirit of God break through to compel the listeners.

This is the dynamic of the gospel story: power in and out of weakness. It points to the God who brings new life by means of a crucified messiah (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

God’s Mysterious Wisdom
As Paul continues to reconstruct the Corinthians’ notion of “wisdom,” he seems to imply that he has more to disclose than merely “the word of the cross” (2:6). And yet, he continues to insist that the cross shows us that following the world’s wisdom is not a path that ends up at the wisdom of God. Even the mysterious, hidden wisdom of God is cruciform.

In fact, throughout 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 Paul places God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom in sharpest antithesis. The special wisdom to which Paul claims access (a) is God’s wisdom, that (b) leads God’s people to glory, and (c) is knowable only by the Spirit. This stands in stark contrast (a) to the world’s and the world’s leaders’ wisdom, that (b) is the product of people doomed for destruction, and (c) lacks the sight to apprehend the saving wisdom of God.

The cross is at the center of this dichotomy. The rulers of this age put their worldly “wisdom” on display when they crucified “the Lord of glory” (2:8).

There is some debate about who Paul intends by “the rulers of this age”: is this a reference to the spiritual forces that rule over the earth, to the earthly leaders themselves, the power of the systems that exceed the doings of any set of individuals, or some combination of these?

Though the rule of which Paul speaks is exercised through human agents, it is also clear throughout the passage that something larger is in view. Behind these human agents stand other cosmic forces and a world-system that is larger and more powerful than the individuals who enact its understanding of “wisdom”.

Paul sets the disputes in Corinth on a cosmic stage: to side with those who advocate worldly wisdom is to side not with the God who saves by means of the cross but, instead, with those who blindly warred against God’s wisdom by crucifying the Lord of glory (2:8).

Paul offers a scriptural proof for his claim that God’s wisdom is hidden from normal human perception (2:9). But the source of the citation is not clear. The first-century church father Clement of Rome links it back to what would be a lost Greek version of Isa 64:4. Somewhat later, Origin of Alexandria tells us the source is the no-longer extant Apocalypse of Elijah. The most we can say for sure is that the images of closed eyes and untold ears are present in Isaiah 64, Isaiah 6, and elsewhere, and that Paul sees them coming to fulfillment in the death of Jesus as God’s great act of salvation.

Here’s Hope: The Spirit of God
If human wisdom is manifest most plainly in the wisdom of the rulers of this age who put Jesus to death, how is a human ever going to be capable of knowing the wisdom of God? In the final section of today’s reading Paul insists that it is only by receiving the Spirit that one can know the things of God (2:10-16). Because God has given the Spirit, those who receive the Spirit can know the mysterious wisdom of God.

Paul probably has his eye on the competition that has erupted on the ground at Corinth, where Apollos’ high level of attainment in the world’s standards of wisdom has led to the formation of a group that identifies as his followers. Undermining the value of this group’s claim to superior learning, Paul maintains that the Spirit whom believers receive is none other than the Spirit of God with God’s cruciform wisdom–it is not the Spirit of the world with its Christ-crucifying “wisdom” (2:12).

And so one more time we see that the story we tell about the cross of Christ becomes the measure by which the stories of our own communities are judged. Do we hope to draw people to our communities based on our ability to achieve, in step with the corporate, educational, and political systems that set up our own cultures’ assessments of power?
Or, are we participating in the upside down economy of the cross, an economy that can only be known and understood and believed and lived by the power of God’s Holy Spirit?