Lectionary Commentaries for February 13, 2011
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37

Amy G. Oden

In the last few weeks, we’ve read a series of lessons on the dangers of reducing the work of God to ritual formula, or trying to use our communal practices to avoid giving our hearts and lives to God and neighbor.

Lectionary Context
This week’s lesson from Matthew 5 continues many of these same themes. The season of Ephipany proclaims the good news of God’s presence with us. Our response to that proclamation, our recognition of God’s life and work here and now, is more than going through the motions of church. Jesus calls us to a whole new life in God.

Sermon on the Mount
This week’s reading follows the Beatitudes to form the Sermon on the Mount (5:1 – 7:29). It contains no parables or miracle narratives, only straightforward teaching: do this. We find here, as throughout Matthew, strong ties to the Mosaic law. The opening verses of chapter 5 tell us that Jesus has left the crowds and is teaching his disciples. Jesus is the teacher, bridging familiar lessons from Jewish teachings to his own ministry as he instructs his disciples in the demands of a Jesus-following life.

A Radicalized Ethic
We often read Jesus’ statements in this discourse–“You have heard that it was said…” followed by “But I say to you…” — as contrasting, or even replacing, prior Jewish teachings with his own. We must take care in such contrasts, for Jesus neither erases nor discounts the teachings of the law (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law,” verse 17). He uses the traditional teachings on murder, adultery, and prayer as essential grounds for building his case for righteousness. Using familiar, perhaps even too familiar, teachings, Jesus intensifies and radicalizes them for his listeners, extending these teachings into almost every area of life.

In this way, Jesus does “not abolish but fulfill[s]” the law (verse 17). No longer do the teachings on murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become doorways into the examination of many internal dynamics as well as external behaviors of one’s life: anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, divorce, and religious speech.

Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of Jesus’ extension of the law here is his internalization of it, so that not only behaviors, but attitudes and emotions fall within its scope. Of course, this is not new to Jewish thinking. Throughout Hebrew Scriptures, the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed (see previous weeks’ passages: Isaiah 58, Micah 6).  Jesus connects the dots for his listeners from outward acts to internal orientation, from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love. Just as it is easier to make a sacrifice at the temple than it is to do justice (Micah 6), so it is easier to keep the commandment against murder than it is to avoid anger in one’s heart.

Jesus offers a more radical ethic, a reign of God ethic, one already hinted at in the list of beatitudes preceding this discourse. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart–all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart.  The righteousness of this newly inaugurated kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor.

Easy Truces
Jesus’ reframing of righteousness exposes the easy truces we make. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words–we even call it “stabbing someone in the back.” The notion that we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, stops us in our tracks. There is no easy, private relationship to God in these words. Resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others, prevent me from even giving my gifts to God.

We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet create primary relationships with work, sports, or even the internet, rather than our spouse. Jesus shifts our attention from particular behaviors we must avoid to particular interior orientations we must cultivate. Kingdom righteousness saturates our whole lives, and promises much more, too. It is the way of blessedness.

God’s inbreaking presence in Jesus Christ re-orders the relationships of this world and re-orients the internal landscapes of our lives. During Epiphany, we claim once again that we have a living God, incarnate among us, not some far-off potentate who must be humored with occasional acts of obeisance. We proclaim that the “Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), the Word embedded in real, everyday life, in outward actions and inward attitudes. We proclaim a God present in the flesh and bone of our lives, not a keeper of check-lists.

This is good news! The God born in a manger enters the messiness of life in all its dimensions, seeking to heal and save. This God offers a life deep and wide, where light shines into every nook and cranny, not a puny, flat life, reduced to avoiding the “big sins.” Jesus gives the disciples a new way of life, not rejecting the tradition, but building upon it. It is a way of life that demands more and promises more. It is life abundant.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Callie Plunket-Brewton

“See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…”

The Old Testament reading opens with a solemn choice, portrayed starkly in terms of life and death. The choice for life is a choice for the “good”, translated as “prosperity” by the NRSV in this text. The meaning of this word includes but is not limited to “prosperity”; its semantic range encompasses the sense of being morally upright, appropriate, or even being in some way valuable.1  The choice for death is a choice for “evil,” a term that can mean “reprobate,” “contemptible,” “of little value” or “sinister.”2 

The sense of these words here in Deuteronomy ought to be understand as referring respectively to the people’s success or failure to thrive in the Promised Land and so “prosperity” and “adversity” are apt translations of the terms, but their broader connotations are brought into play as the biblical writer clarifies the nature of the two choices with which verse 15 begins. 

Choosing life or death might seem at first glance to refer to a single event, a one-time decision, but the metaphorical language of verses 16-17 suggests that the writer is talking about the choices one makes over the course of one’s entire life, for both of the word pairs, life/prosperity and death/adversity, are described in terms of pathways. So life/good is defined as “obeying the commandments of Yahweh,” “loving the Lord your God,” “walking in (God’s) ways” and “observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances.” Opposed to the good life is the one who chooses another path, who “does not hear” and “turns away” from Yahweh to other gods. For the former, the consequences will be prosperity, numerous offspring, and a life filled with blessings. For the latter, there will be only death.

The language of Deuteronomy 30:15-20 places it firmly in the context of the ancient Near Eastern covenant. A binding document, agreed upon by two parties, outlining their obligations to one another, covenant documents have been found throughout the ancient Near East. The two parties may be equals or their relationship may be characterized as hierarchical, as in the case of the covenants between the great empires and their vassal kingdoms. In the Old Testament, the language and characteristic features of the ancient Near Eastern covenant are taken up and used to describe the relationship between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 in particular contains several elements that are clearly associated with a covenant:

(1) The witnesses to the covenant in verse 19. Note that these witnesses are not divine beings as in many of the ancient Near East covenants. Here one can see that the monotheistic perspective one finds in the Old Testament has changed the nature of the witnesses from gods, so that the earth itself testifies to the agreement.

(2) The stark nature of the choice before the people: be loyal or die. Their loyalty will be rewarded with innumerable blessings, but any failure to honor the terms of the covenant will result in the dissolution of the covenant. So we read in verses 17-18: “But if your heart turns away…and (you) are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them. I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”

It is important to highlight the theological significance of the covenant language used here. The people and Yahweh have entered into a covenant that is mutually binding. This covenant is the broader context of the entire book of Deuteronomy: the people will be established by God in the land and will thrive there if they live according to the law. Everything depends upon the people’s willingness to live in a way that reflects the alliance they’ve made with Yahweh. There is no room in the Promised Land for other gods. 

These words seem simplistic in many ways. Follow God: Be blessed. Follow other gods: Be cursed. Prosperity is linked with faithfulness, while the failure to thrive is a clear sign that one has strayed from the right path. That theological promise may ring hollow to those who have witnessed or experienced suffering firsthand. Indeed, within the canon of the book of Job is a challenge to this simplistic take on achievement. Do we throw out the perspective of Deuteronomy then? I think not. Rather, it is important to understand both Deuteronomy as a whole and this text in particular as establishing a basis for living the “good life” but not answering, or even attempting to answer, all the questions that arise over the course of our lives.

In the first place, Deuteronomy upholds the value of human life, in particular, the value of success and flourishing community. These joys of human life are honored as gifts from God and to be treasured as such. Prosperity can be a good thing, a sign of hard work and divine blessing. Faithful stewardship of God’s gifts can reap remarkable rewards that should be celebrated, and yet Deuteronomy 30:15-20 provides a much-needed perspective on what it truly means to live the “good life.” A truly rich and full life is one that is lived in right relationship with God and with others. Walking in God’s ways and being obedient to God’s will is a solid basis for a life that won’t be unmoored by economic downturns.

1HALOT, 372.
2HALOT, 1250-1251.


Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 119 follows Psalms 113-118, known as the Egyptian Hallel, which are psalms recited during the Jewish festival of Passover.

It, like Psalms 111 and 112, is an alphabetic acrostic in form, but it is vastly in substance. While Psalm 111 consists of only seventy-two words and Psalm 112 of seventy-nine words, Psalm 119 has 176 verses, in which groups of eight verses of the psalm begin with each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The three psalms, however, share a common theme of reverence for the Torah, the instruction given by God to the ancient Israelites at Sinai. Psalm 119 begins with the words “(‘ashre) are the ones whose way is sincere, the ones who walk in the Torah of the LORD.” It is recited at the Feast of Pentecost, the Spring festival observed fifty days after Passover, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai. 

The poet of Psalm 119 employs a common “wisdom” form in composing the psalm–the acrostic. Leslie Allen describes it as “the most developed instance [of the acrostic form] in the Old Testament.”1  H.-J. Kraus writes, “The art of alphabetic organization has produced an unusual opus which in schematism and compulsion of form has no parallel in the OT.”2  Acrostic poems were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways.  Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in individual and corporate recitation; and, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject from alif to tav, from A to Z. 

The acrostic structure of Psalm 119 marks it as a wisdom composition, as do its content and message. Wisdom psalms are defined as those that provide “instruction in right living and right faith in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament–Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. And in most of these psalms the path to wisdom is through adherence to the Torah, the instruction of the Lord.”3  Within the poetic lines of Psalm 119, seven Hebrew words are used in synonymous interchange with the word torah (translated below as “instruction”), which itself is used twenty-five times in the psalm. The words are:

  • ‘edah, “decree”  (used 23 times)
  • mishpat, “ordinance” (used 23 times)
  • choq, “statute” (used 22 times)
  • dabar, “word” (used 22 times)
  • mitsvah, “commandment” (used 22 times)
  • piqqud, “precept” (used 21 times)
  • ‘imrah, “promise” (used 19 times)

While each synonym carries a slightly different nuance of meaning, little is gained by attempting to distinguish a separate meaning, theological or otherwise, for each of them.

Verses 1-8 of Psalm 119 each begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. The first two verses begin with the word ‘ashre (translated in the NRSV as “happy” and in the NIV as “blessed”), the same word which begins the Psalter in Psalm 1:1. “Happiness” or “blessedness” in Psalm 119 comes from the same source as in Psalm 1–the instruction (Torah) of the LORD. 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.

Torah occurs in verse 1, and five of the other seven synonyms for torah that occur in Psalm 119 appears in the first eight verses:  v.2 — ‘edah, decree; v. 4 — piqqud, precept; v. 5 — choq, statute; v. 6 — mitzvah, commandment;  and v. 7 — mishpat, ordinance.

The torah of Yahweh, in its eight synonymous renderings, is the central focus of Psalm 119. But Psalm 119 never actually defines or speaks of the origin of the instruction of Yahweh. Moses, Sinai, the content of the instructions is never mentioned. One scholar writes that the concept of torah in Psalm 119 is a monolithic presence, consisting of individual laws and teachings to be sure, but described in only the most general terms, namely the eight interchangeable synonyms. Torah has become for the psalmist much more than the laws by which Israel should live, as given in the Pentateuch; torah has become a personal way to God.”4  

In Psalm 119, then, the instruction of Yahweh is not presented as a strict set of rules and regulations, but a way of life or approach to being that brings one closer to God. The psalmist repeatedly implores God to “cause me to live” (verses 25, 37, 40, 77, 88, 107, 144, 149, 154, 156, 159) because of the torah, that is the instruction, the decree, the precept, the ordinance, the words, the promise, the statute, the commandment–because of all of the teachings of God for the good of humankind.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)

Our God is not a God of arbitrary rules and regulations, although that is what Christianity often feels like in our day and time. God graciously gave the Israelites a means for living as God’s people, not in arbitrariness, but in hesed, in covenant commitment, loyalty, and love. May we, with the psalmist, be able to sing,

Your hesed, O LORD, fills the earth;
teach me your statues.  (119:64)
See, how I love your precepts;
O LORD, according to your hesed, cause me to live. (119:159)

1Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, The Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 21 (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1983), 139.
2H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1993), 411.
3Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Introduction to the Psalms:  A Song from Ancient Israel (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2004), 25-26.  This author includes Pss 1, 32, 37, 49, 73, 78, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133, and 145 in the Gattung “wisdom psalm.”
4David Noel Freedman, Psalm 119:  The Exaltation of Torah, Biblical and Judaic Studies, ed. William Henry Propp, vol. 6 (Winona Lake, IN:  Eisenbrauns, 1999), 89.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

J.R. Daniel Kirk

After a heady exposition of how true, Godly wisdom is given by the Spirit of God, Paul returns to directly address the Corinthians’ divisions–and the assessments of themselves and their leaders upon which those divisions are based.

For people who considered themselves wise, Paul has some hard words about true wisdom.

Not a Spiritual People
In 2:6 Paul indicated that there was more wisdom from God to be had beyond merely the word of the cross. Such wisdom is spoken “among the mature.” The implication there that the Corinthians might not qualify as “mature” is explicitly stated here, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as to infants in Christ” (3:1).

Here is another verse whose full significance we might skip by if we’re not paying close attention. First, Paul’s very description of them as immature, and therefore not capable of receiving the wisdom of God, flies in the face of their own self-assessment as wise people.

More than this, however, Paul’s assessment undermines their self-understanding as a “Spiritual” people. These Christians take tremendous pride in their Spiritual gifts, as we see in 1 Corinthians 12-14. But those gifts themselves are not being used in keeping with the gospel. Thus, paradoxically, the very use of Spiritual gifts by the Corinthians calls their spirituality into question.

Later on, Paul will speak of being a Spiritual person as a function of participating in the life of the resurrected Christ (15:44-49). To be “in Christ” is, by definition, to be a (Holy) Spiritual person.

Thus, when Paul says that he could not speak to the Corinthians as to mature, Spiritual people (3:1) he is not only telling them to grow up, he is also undercutting their mis-placed self assessment as being particularly mature, particularly wise, particularly spiritual–super Christians!

If Paul did not give them the full wisdom of which he was capable, it is their own lack of maturity that dictated it (3:2-4). And once again we find that the Corinthians occupy the same ground upon which we too easily find ourselves standing. We come up with infinite ways to measure spiritual maturity. But Paul brings the Corinthians, and us, back to the simple measure of our life together. “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh?” (3:3).

Paul has argued that at the heart of our Christian identity is our oneness in Christ. It might be worth exploring if we have been willing to hold ourselves and our leaders up to this standard of maturity. Are we demanding an end to jealousy and quarreling?

Acknowledging Each Other’s Labors
In a series of images, Paul proceeds to put his and Apollos’ ministries in proper perspective. Different leaders in the church should not be seen as rallying points for competing parties, but as co-workers performing complimentary tasks for the achievement of a common goal.

In 1:21 Paul had contrasted God’s wisdom with the world’s by saying that God saves by means of the belief that comes when people hear the word of the cross. Now, he urges the Corinthians to see that both he and Apollos are servants through whom the Corinthians have come to such believe (3:5).

Notice how Paul has undermined their efforts to flock to one leader over another. Although worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom are antithetical concepts, he places both himself and his purported competitor Apollos on the side of God’s wisdom and the gospel. Rather than villainize Apollos, Paul insists that the only way to rightly interpret the work of God in Corinth is to see that both men have been working together, under God, to build the church.

Paul uses two metaphors to help the Corinthians imagine his and Apollos’ complimentary ministries. First, in an agricultural metaphor, he depicts himself as the one who scattered the seed and Apollos as the one who cared for it by watering it. But any growth is only from God–which means that God is the only person in that whole interchange who is worthy of allegiance (3:6-7). The imagery shows why all the Corinthians should be allied together under God.

If Paul and Apollos are one, united in their work for and with God (3:8-9), where does that leave the Corinthians? They are the field over which the leaders are working (3:9), or the building they are helping construct (3:9-12). The Corinthians are dependent on both workers, and should not be allying themselves with one against the other.

The Cross, Our Canon
The first few chapters of 1 Corinthians lay down a number of challenges for the contemporary church. Are we willing to see our own division and quarreling as the fruit of immature spirits rather than of righteous indignation? Are we willing to use the economy of the cross as our measure of the world rather than measuring the people of cross by the economy of the world?

And, even more challenging: when we or our people are pitched against another person and his or her followers, are we willing to step back and re-tell the story so that everyone can look at the other as “sister,” acknowledge that the other is “brother,” and see the work that each is engaged in as an indispensable aspect of the work of the Kingdom of God?

Perhaps the most formidable call of 1 Corinthians is not simply to recognize that our own divisions are not God’s best for God’s people, but to take up its insistence that we make the gospel message of the one, crucified Christ our own canon for measuring the church. Are we, in fact, a cross-shaped people?