Lectionary Commentaries for January 29, 2023
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Jillian Engelhardt

When, in Matthew 5:1, Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples, we get our first glimpse of Jesus as an authoritative teacher. We know that Jesus is a teacher and a healer because the Sermon on the Mount follows a summary statement of Jesus’ activity: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (4:23). 

Matthew shows Jesus to be an active agent of God’s power among the people and an authoritative teacher, highlighted by what is arguably the most famous of Jesus’ teachings, the Sermon on the Mount. This week’s passage is the overture, if you will, to this sermon.

The beatitudes: preamble to ministry

The beatitudes, in my mind, serve as sort of a preamble for the way in which Jesus will interpret the law and how he will conduct his ministry. So far in Matthew, Jesus has prepared for his ministry. He has been baptized. He has been tempted by Satan. He has called his first four disciples. He has taught in the synagogues, proclaimed the good news, and cured diseases and sickness. 

Now, he turns to teaching his disciples (the first time they are called such in the Gospel), presumably only the four that have so far been called—Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John. The crowds, then, serve as a sort of backdrop to this sermon. They aren’t the direct audience of the sermon, but they are presumably the recipients of the divine favor Jesus says God has in store. 

It is easy, from our pews in the wealthiest country in the world, to read the beatitudes and overlook the embodiment present in them. Let’s take them each in turn.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I read the poor in spirit as those who lack, who are materially bereft and therefore worn down by the plight of poverty. They are those whom society has left behind, who break their backs to make ends meet, whose struggle for basic survival crushes their spirits. Jesus says theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, for there will be no poor in spirit there. God will set things right.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” Grief comes for all of us, but mortality rates were higher in the ancient world. Parents simply could not expect their children to survive infancy, let alone make it to adulthood. It was not a given. War, food and housing insecurity, and infectious diseases could cut a life short. And yes, it is right to grieve the loss of one’s land. Jesus’ audience was living under imperial occupation. And the audience of the Gospel, encountering this story after Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, were certainly grieved by the violation of their land and sacred space. The Promised Land was occupied. Yet, to those who mourn, Jesus proclaims a coming comfort.

“Blessed are the meek.” This is a reference to Psalm 37:11. Here “meek” refers to those who are abused by the wicked who seem only to prosper. God reassures the meek that they will inherit the land/earth. Jesus, likewise, tells the disciples that those who are abused by the wicked will inherit the land/earth—a land currently claimed and exploited by Rome for the benefit of a few. God’s rule will reverse this. 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Righteousness in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Isaiah 51) refers to a total societal restructuring that includes the equitable distribution of resources. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those that Rome’s unjust distribution keeps at the margins of subsistence. In a reimagined society, all will have enough. And Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, these folks will be filled. 

“Blessed are the merciful.” Jesus says that those who practice mercy, those who give of their resources and care for the outcast, will receive mercy. Rome was not known for showing mercy. Rome violently expanded its rule and heavily taxed its population to the point of food insecurity. God’s rule is different. In God’s Kingdom all will be welcome and will have plenty.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.” The pure in heart are those who follow the will of God in their thinking and doing. Jesus will parse out the importance of a person’s “heart” in discipleship later in the sermon (5:27-30). For those that commit to God thoroughly, without hypocrisy, will see God—an “image of intimate, face-to-face encounter with God.”1

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” I find this one particularly interesting, as Rome claimed to be the bearers of peace, but Rome’s peace only comes through domination. In Matthew, peace is not the absence of conflict; Jesus is well aware that his message will cause division (10:34-36). However, no one is ever coerced or forced into becoming a disciple. Rome subjugated people to their rule through threat and violence; entry into God’s kingdom is voluntary. “Peacemakers enact not the empire’s will but God’s merciful reign, living toward this wholeness and well-being and against any power that hinders or resists it.”2

For those of us living comfortable lives in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, how can we embody the beatitudes? How can we pursue justice, righteousness, and peace? How can we embody God’s promises to those that are poor, mourn, and oppressed? When the beatitudes are rooted in embodiment, rather than spiritualized, we can more clearly see the ways we could act to bring God’s kingdom into people’s lives. 

Finally, Jesus says “blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake … when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” The life of a disciple of Jesus runs counter to the values of the world. Perhaps we don’t experience persecution in our modern American context in the way that early Jesus followers did—no one is looking to kill us simply because we confess Christ. But do not be deceived. When we live a life for justice for the oppressed and marginalized, when we extend mercy to the outcast, when we live the values outlined in the beatitudes, the rulers of this world will resist us. But we must persevere if we are to be blessed. 


  1. Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY (2000), 135.
  2.  Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY (2000), 136.

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 6:1-8

Megan Fullerton Strollo

According to John Collins, Micah 6:8 is “biblical ethics in a nutshell.”1 

He’s not incorrect. In fact, there are indications throughout the text that the message should have profound and even cosmic impacts for the people of God. 

First, the historical context for this passage is difficult to discern. There are no explicit references in the text to people, places, or situations that might elucidate the present conflict. Broadly, we read in the introduction (1:1) that Micah of Moresheth brought his message during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, though he does not seem to have been closely affiliated with the kings (unlike, for example, Isaiah of Jerusalem). There is also evidence that later editors amended and added to Micah’s messages, giving us a composite text with a core prophetic message that is made relevant over and over again. Micah’s original message was likely directed at Israel, but served also as a warning for Judah as well. Concerns for social justice and cultic practices are dominant throughout the book as a whole, and both themes were in line with other 8th century prophets. 

Looking specifically at 6:1–8, multiple clues are present in the text that indicate to a reader that this particular message is of utmost importance. First, the structure and form of the pericope itself tells us that we should pay attention. The passage opens with a repeated call to “hear,” and the Hebrew word shem‘a has more than merely an auditory meaning—it carries with an expectation that what is heard will be followed up with action. In other words, “heed” this message, says Micah. 

Second, the form of the message is cause for attention: what is brought to be “heeded” is a dispute or controversy. The Hebrew word rib connotes a legal or judicial sense, and is used elsewhere to refer specifically to a covenant lawsuit, in which God as plaintiff condemns the people for breaking the covenant. The use of the rib structure here brings solemnity to the matter—these calls for justice and ethical action are closely connected to the relationship between God and the people. 

Third, the rhetoric of this particular rib is quite unique. Indeed, it is not entirely clear here whether God is the plaintiff or the defendant. While the prophet calls for God to “plead your case” (6:1), God does not pronounce guilt. Rather, God asks a question: “… [W]hat have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” (6:3). Some scholars read these questions as sarcastic in tone,2 but they may also suggest God’s own weariness or an entreating for understanding in the midst of a frayed relationship. Indeed, if we allow that some of the book has been edited in the postexilic era, such uncertainty and questioning is a common feature in presentations of the divine-human relationship. 

God’s questions in verse 3 are followed by questions of the people in verse 6, framing the text with further uncertainty, or at least an uncertainty in how to solve this rib. Both sides of this relationship seem to be tip-toeing around. 

Both God’s speech and the people’s questions intensify and expand as they go. Twice, God’s interjection, “O my people!” (6:3, 5), shakes the hearer to remember the covenanted relationship. Moreover, the short recital of God’s “saving acts” (6:5) pack quite a punch. In verses 6–7, the people ask what type of offering is most suitable or pleasing for God, building hyperbolically from 1 to 10,000, and then qualitatively from burnt offerings of animals to humans. (This notion, abhorrent to readers today, perhaps would not have been for those making the suggestion originally.) 

Finally, it is important to notice that God speaks directly to the people, but the people do not respond directly back to God. Again we see hints that the divine-human relationship is at stake here—so, we ought to be paying close attention and taking this seriously. 

Fourth, elements of wisdom play in this passage in interesting ways, expanding the impact of the message. Perhaps indicative of later editing, the appeal to creation marks the rib as impacting not only the people but the whole of the cosmos. Through a literary merism (from the “mountains” to the “enduring foundations of the earth”) in 6:1–2, the prophet enjoins all of creation to hear and heed the message (see also Deuteronomy 30:19). Framing the passage on the other end (verse 8), the use of “mortal” (Hebrew ’adam) and “good” (Hebrew tob) recall Genesis 1. ’Adam is unusual here, marks the only occurrence of this word in the vocative, and is also characteristic in wisdom ethical instruction. In addition, seeking “what is good” (6:8) is a wisdom question, even when used by prophets (for example, Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:15–16; see also Ecclesiastes 6:11–12). 

Given the many clues in the text, by the time the reader gets to 6:8—the pinnacle of the text—the reader should be sitting up and paying attention. In this final verse, the courtroom metaphor continues: following the speeches of both plaintiff and defendant, the ruling comes down via the prophet, the adjudicator of sorts. Once more, questions are used—indirect questions, highlighting that these things are perpetual (6:8a: what is good, and what God seeks from you [translation mine]). Moreover, the last three verbs are complementary infinitive constructs, clarifying or explaining what it is that God seeks from us continually. We may have already been “told” what is good, but these things we must keep doing always because God is always seeking them from us. 

Do justice—here, not a state, but an action. 

Love kindness—without loving kindness, justice is incomplete. 

Walk humbly—or rather, reverently with God. 

The Hebrew root tsana‘, often translated “humbly,” signifies that “walking with” God includes a mindfulness of God’s attentions and works (verses 3–5), and of the affirmation that one bears responsibility for one’s actions in life. 

Thus, these final words of the prophet are a culmination of the whole passage, encapsulating the solemnity and the gravitas of the rib structure, and marking the impact of God’s saving acts and of the people’s questions. The message conveys more than human ethics—how we act for and with one another reflects our relationship with God. 

That’s an Epiphany message for the ages.


  1. John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deuterocanonical Books, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018), 573.
  2.  See, for example, Daniel Smith-Christopher, Micah, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015),  190.


Commentary on Psalm 15

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 15 is classified generally as a Community Hymn and more specifically as an Entrance Liturgy.1

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!


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 29, 2017.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Nancy Lammers Gross

It seems that especially since the explosion of the online social media age, we have acquainted ourselves with every form of human foolishness imaginable. There is foolishness that is silly, mistaken, misguided, confused, or just lapse in judgment. And then there is foolishness that is conniving, scheming, devious, and manipulative. We are shameless in sharing the former on our social media platforms, and we are shameless in our willingness to thoughtlessly fall prey to or even perpetrate the latter. It’s not that we have discovered new forms of foolishnessthere is nothing new under the sunbut we are all more exposed to all of it.

Following are four themes developed last week for possible sermon series.

Called to be saints together

In the current political environment, when churches and families have been impacted over disagreements about the pandemic, when we have been disoriented and are sometimes unsure of whom to trust, when fatigue has overtaken leaders we used to count on, when many have to think about how to reconstitute church, when we realize there is no going back but only forward into a future that is unknown, we need now perhaps more than ever in any of our lives to be united, in agreement, of one mind. The last thing the church needs is quarreling and divisiveness.

Paul unmistakably links loyalty to various teachers and preachers to foolishness. Misplaced loyalty leads to death. Paul unmistakably links pride in one’s own innate attributes to foolishness. Self-pride leads to death. Paul links earthly power and human wisdom to weakness and foolishness. These lead to death. These all lead to death not as punishment but because they blind us to the wisdom and goodness of God, and to the power of the cross.  

The rhetorical questions, “where is the wise one, where is the scribe, where is the debater?” do not incline one to enthusiastically raise a hand and say, “here am I!” The questions do not seek to identify the wise one, scribe, or debater so much as to suggest these capacities are worth little to begin with when it comes to the kingdom of God. Further, those who are still looking for a sign that the Messiah has come, and those who want a cogent argument for that sign will be disappointed because that is not the way God chose to save the world. Whether silliness, innocence, deviousness or scheming, the power of the cross exposes the foolishness of human wisdom and reveals our need to be united at the foot of the cross. Our divisions must be heart-breaking foolishness to God.

Together we lack no spiritual gift

After speaking rhetorically and metaphorically about how we seek to justify ourselves, Paul turns to the experience of the Corinthian Christians themselves. Not only is their preferred “wise one” not so wise, but they themselves were mostly born of low estate, and that is just the point. Paul has been preaching about how together the Corinthian Christians have the gifts to do the work of God until Christ returns.

We are not inclined to think it is the unwise, the lowly, the common person, the weak, the despised, the uneducated through whom God works God’s power and wisdom. Yet after telling us that God has given every gift needed to do the ministry of Jesus until the return of Christ, here Paul is nearly explicit in saying it is to these, the lowly, the weak, that God has chosen to work. Pride of gift gets in the way of the exercise of gift. And pride in the gifts of others often excuses us from exercising our own.

It’s not about you . . .

Which one of us does not value or pursue wisdom, financial security, respect, accomplishment? Which one of us does not want enough control over our environment to create a more secure future for our children, families, churches, or communities? The power reversals in this passage, the logic of the gospel, are more intellectually accessible than they are emotionally satisfying.  Only spiritually when one gets a taste of the wisdom and power of God through Christ is one able to let go of self-focus and self-satisfaction. The willingness not to be right, the generosity to suspend judgment, the ability to listen carefully to one with whom we disagree, the open-minded curiosity to wonder how another came to believe what they dothese are all characteristics of knowing it is not about us. The foolishness of the cross reduces all human pretense to control and all boasting in human accomplishment to nothing. It’s not about you.

God is faithful

God’s faithfulness is manifest through the foolishness of the cross. We are not embarrassed by the cross itself as early Christians might have been. The scandal of the cross has largely worn off on us. But neither should the cross be a point of pride. A reading of The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone will make one think twice about proudly wearing a cross because of the despicable things that have been done in the name of Christ and specifically the connection of the Christian cross to the lynching of African Americans.1  

Paul is not suggesting, however, that we boast in the cross. He suggests that if we must boast, we boast in the Lord, quoting Jeremiah who lifts up the voice of God, saying, “I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight.” It is this God whom we declare, proclaim, “boast.”

God is the source of life, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The God who chose what is despised in the world to bring to nothing things that are is the God who is faithful and called us into God’s fellowship through Jesus Christ. God will do what God promises to do.


  1. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis Books, 2011.