Lectionary Commentaries for February 5, 2023
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

Melanie A. Howard

As the first major piece of teaching within the Sermon on the Mount after the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), Jesus’ teaching about salt and light (5:13-16) and his explanation about his teachings in relation to the law (5:17-20) serve as helpful orienting pieces to the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Teaching a community

Unlike so many other languages, including the Greek in which this text is written, English is impoverished for its lack of differentiation between the singular and plural second person “you.” It is important to note, though, that 5:13-16 is addressed to a plural audience (or, in colloquial terms, “y’all”). That is, no one individual embodies salt or light. Rather, the full community is needed to exemplify that which most resembles the salt and light of which Jesus speaks.

Furthermore, these metaphors themselves bespeak a communal reality. That is, salt is most effective in its work when it is used with other elements. In culinary matters, salt works in tandem with other food to bring out the best flavor (see also Job 6:6). For many sacrifices described in the Hebrew Bible, salt accompanies the sacrificed meat or food (see also Leviticus 2:13; Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Ezekiel 43:23-24).

As a metaphor, light also functions somewhat communally. That is, in the absence of anything else, light serves little function. Rather, for light to be the most effective, it must emerge within a poorly illuminated environment to brighten that which already exists so that it may be perceived by others in that space. As this text is read during the season of Epiphany, it may be worth recalling the words from Isaiah that opened this liturgical season: “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1).

A study in contrasts

Matthew 5:13-16 is especially notable for the contrast that it poses to material later in Matthew 6:1-4. In that later text, Jesus will warn about the public practice of one’s “righteousness” (6:1). Here, though, Jesus encourages his audience to let their good works be seen by others (5:16). Furthermore, he suggests that personal righteousness must be of the highest level (5:20). How then might this seeming contradiction within the Sermon be understood? 

One possibility for understanding this seeming contradiction is to examine the parts of this text that are descriptive versus the parts of the text that are prescriptive. That is, Jesus begins this series of instructions by indicating to his audience that they are the salt of the earth (5:13) and the light of the world (5:14). The verbs here are indicative. That is, they indicate an existing condition; they don’t prescribe it. 

The only imperative in this text is in verse 16. Even here, though, the command that is given is not actually a command to Jesus’ human audience. Rather, the text includes a grammatical form that does not clearly exist in English: a third-person imperative. This means that what is translated in the NRSV as “Let your light shine” is not actually a command to the human audiences of this imperative. Rather, it is a command to the light itself. This is significant because it means that the human audience of 5:13-16 is not being issued explicit instructions about how they are to behave. Instead, that which comprises the human essence already (for example, “light”) is simply instructed to be made even more manifest than what it already is. It is not for humans to accomplish any particular work. Humans are simply to allow their core essence to be made more evident. 

Thus, the seeming contrast between 5:13-16 and 6:1-4 does not actually present the contradiction that it might seem to pose on the surface. Where 6:1-4 is cautioning against the performative enacting of particular actions intended to capture the attention of others, 5:13-16 is instead celebrating the ways in which humans most authentically reflect that which already comprises their essence.

Jesus and the Law

The text shifts somewhat in Matthew 5:17 from the theme of celebrating the manifestation of human characteristics within existing communities to the topic of how Jesus’s instruction relates to communities of old. Though this might at first seem like an odd way in which to describe Jesus’s teachings about the law in 5:17-20, it is nonetheless the case that the law serves as a thread connecting past and present.

The importance of Jesus’ indication in Matthew 5:17-20 about how he perceives his teaching in relation to the Mosaic law cannot be minimized. That is, while the so-called “antitheses” in 5:21-48 could seem to give the impression that Jesus is overturning or otherwise modifying the law, his statements in 5:17-20 should be understood as the foundation upon which all of his subsequent instruction is based. 

Audiences of this text for today would do well to remember that Jesus preaches as a teacher who is steeped within the Jewish tradition and Jewish faith. That is, Jesus should not be understood as offering something that supersedes the law. Instead, his teaching should be viewed as that of one who holds the law in the greatest respect. 

For Christian preachers who stand in the long shadow of Jesus in bringing the good news to audiences today, care is warranted in the approach to this text. That is, the Christian preacher who emulates Jesus fundamentally imitates one who upheld and celebrated the Jewish faith. Jesus’ teachings, then, are best understood as those of a Jewish reformer, not as those of one who is attempting to denigrate and displace an “outdated” religious system.

The (synchronic) communal nature of Jesus’ teachings in 5:13-16 undergird the (diachronic) communal nature of his teachings in 5:17-20. That is, as Jesus upholds the importance of the law, he simultaneously upholds the historical connection between his own time and Moses’. This communal connection across time offers an important example for preachers today. That is, Christian preachers would do well to follow Jesus’ example of reaching into the faith’s history to find modern meaning. “Relevance,” as Jesus demonstrates, need not be measured by historical proximity. Rather, the “relevant” preacher can emerge as most effective in their ministry when they both teach and perform the very actions that the ancient law demands (5:19).

First Reading

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

Juliana Claassens

On the surface, this week’s lectionary text is about people doing everything right. They are very religious; one would say, seeking God, and doing what they can to know God’s will and to draw near to God (verse 2). And yet, as the first verse proclaims, God announces not deliverance but judgment to the people (verse 1).

How did things go so wrong? After all, Isaiah 58:1-12 expresses a keen yearning for God, and continuing themes throughout Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) represented the hope for God’s presence, delivering the people from bondage and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. However, profoundly capturing the post-exilic reality underlying Trito-Isaiah, one finds in this text that the sheer exuberance of a Deutero-Isaiah, which in jubilant terms proclaimed the return of the exiles and the restoration of Zion, has given way to disillusionment and despair, pertaining to the challenges facing the community after they had returned from Babylon. We know from other books of the same time (Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Habakkuk) of the hardships, famine, failed crops, drought, and the internal strife between the exiles and the inciles. And as before the exile, also the lack of justice. Thus, a central question at the heart of this week’s lectionary text is how God is present in a context with so much misery, poverty, injustice, and infighting.

God’s presence in Isaiah 58:1-12 should be understood in terms of God’s justice that runs like a golden thread throughout the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 5:7, one, for instance, heard God’s anger at a people who confused justice (mishpat) with bloodshed (mishpah), righteousness (sedekah) with an outcry (seakah). In the reality of bloodshed and outcry, the image of a God who hears the victims’ cries, and who is not blind to the injustices of those most vulnerable serves as a reminder of the claim that God is exalted in justice. 

Moreover, in Isaiah 42:1-7, God’s servant, either an individual or the community as a whole, is charged with the call to bring forth justice. The servant, who is called the light to the nations, serves as an agent of deliverance and healing (see also verse 7, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness”). 

However, in Isaiah 58:1-12, the prophet writing in the name of his predecessors is deeply frustrated that people’s priorities are so skewed. The people appear to be deeply religious, seeking God, delighting in God’s ways, and drawing near to God (verse 2), but rather their actions show a severe disconnect between their theology and ethics. They are yearning for God’s presence; they think they are seeking God’s ways and hence engage in religious activities such as regularly keeping the fast. 

But similar also to Amos 5:21-23, in which God unequivocally pronounces that God hates/ despises the people’s religious festivals with all the praise songs and the various sacrifices which God refuses to accept, one finds in Isaiah 58:3-7 that the prophet, speaking for God, is calling out their hypocrisy. Thus, when they call out to God, asking why God has not heard their cries or noticed (recognized) their efforts in fasting and humbling themselves before God, the prophet supplies God’s answer in the first person: The reason why God is not impressed with their religious activities is that their fasting is entirely self-serving. They may observe fast days but are guilty of oppressing their workers and living in discord with their neighbors. But worse of all is that they neglect those who have real needs in their community: the hungry, the homeless, and those who lack adequate clothing. Poverty has become a yoke crushing the poor; the bonds of injustice make it impossible to escape. 

As in Micah 6:6-8, in which God challenges the core of the religious practices of sacrifices and burnt offerings and instead prefers acts of justice and mercy, God in Isaiah 58:5-6 gives new meaning to the fast that God chooses. God’s idea of an act of devotion is to break the yoke of injustice and to undo the chords that keep such a yoke in its place. To do justice thus implies quite vividly removing all barriers that weigh people down. In verse 7, practical examples of such justice-enhancing acts are given in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked. 

In Isaiah 58, there is a clear connection between justice and liberation and God’s presence. Sally McFague famously said, “If God is absent from this world, it is because we are” (Life Abundant, 151). And conversely, whenever people take up their vocation to see justice, to tend to those who suffer, God’s presence breaks into the world, as in the reference in verse 8 that God’s glory will be a rear guard to you, thus a source of protection against forces that pursue one from behind. In verse 12, people are called to be “repairers of the breach and restorers of the street.” What a beautiful image of healing and restoration in a world that has come undone. 

Judah is called to restore and mend the divided community, mirroring God’s restorative action outlined in Deutero-Isaiahone could say “to represent and resemble God in the world” in what typically is described as Imitatio Dei. As James Mays writes: “The Israelites’ identity and destiny as the people of the Lord is a movement toward the realization of humanity’s identity and destiny as image of God” (“The Self in the Psalms and the Image of God,” 39). In this regard, the Jewish notion of Tiqum Olam, the mending of the world, comes to mind. It might be good to consider how our actions, great and small, can play a role in mending the world as we are called to follow God in building, restoring, feeding, clothing, caring, and repairing individuals and a community in need. This text can help us think of ways in which we truly can make God present in this world, of how we can act for good, and take up the responsibility to make our respective corners of the world, a little better.

Works Cited:

  1. Mays, James Luther. “The Self in the Psalms and the Image of God.” Pages 27-43 in God and Human Dignity. R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead (Eds). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
  2. McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.


Commentary on Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Jason Byassee

This is not the norm everywhere in scripture. Jesus is the best among us—the living God in our skin—and he turned out homeless and abandoned and tortured to death—that divine skin shredded.1 Job, both God and Satan agree, is about as good as mere mortals can get, and his skin and his family and his possessions and his soul suffer for it.

But the portrait Psalm 112 paints can still ring true. Sometimes those who are actually good do well in the world. The psalm makes clear we’re talking about material, this-worldly possessions—descendants, wealth, riches, triumph. Their obligation is, of course, to give back to others. God’s gifts are never for us, they’re through us for everybody else.

In a world where all is as God wants, the righteous always prosper. But, achingly, this world is not one where all is as God wants.

The psalm is twinned with its predecessor, Psalm 111, which describes the nature of God before 112 describes the nature of a God-fearer. Pair the two and you have a portrait of a divinity and humanity. Both are acrostic poems, with each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting wholeness and universality. And the psalm reads much like more famous Psalms like 1 and 119 that set out two ways, a righteous way and a wicked way, to commend the former and condemn the latter. We might add that righteousness would be more universally pursued if it led as quickly and automatically as Psalm 112 suggests.

Shortly after the 2016 American presidential election tore hearts open, Kate McKinnon took to the piano on Saturday Night Live to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She’s a comedic actor, it’s a comedy show, and surely the word “Praise the Lord” has never been sung so earnestly on network late night television. It was a lament—a biblical cry for the Lord’s presence—penned by a great Jewish songwriter who had also just died that week. Read in a skewed way, Psalm 112 could suggest that the rich are rich because they’re righteous. But read in the context of the whole bible, we know that is not so. Our God has a cross through the heart. And so will we.

There are already clues that things are more complicated than a literal reading of 112 lets on. “Fear of the Lord” is a key to this happiness. This is not reptilian terror. Our culture’s shapers move us with fear through news or marketing. Only fear of something greater can keep us from fearing something lesser.2 All fears pale compared to fear of the Lord. Even stranger, this fear is paired with “delight” (Psalm 112:1).

The Lord’s commands are not made for drudgery. They’re how to be happy. The promises continue to pile up—progeny and spending money and steady hearts. One scholar suggests the blessings here are Abrahamic.3 God promises Israel descendants without number, establishment in the land, milk and honey and all the rest of us. Israel—and all humanity—has failed ever since to keep our end of the bargain, to be faithful back to God. And yet God cannot help but be faithful.

The world is a dark place, as the psalmist makes clear in several places (verses 4, 7, 8 & 10). But the blessed light up the world, as Jesus preaches in Matthew 5:14-16.4 Scripture plays with themes of light and darkness throughout. And perhaps most interestingly for this text, themes of illumination are particularly important at Sinai.5 God is light itself on that mountain, leading the Israelites with fire, lighting up the worlds, having to shield his servant Moses from his unimaginable splendor. Psalm 112 attributes that sort of world-illuminating light to the righteous keeper of the commands. She shines with God’s own light, and lights up a dark world.
And one way she does so is by lending money without expectation of return or interest. Here the just person in scripture is the mirror opposite to those usually thought to be wealthy. Who grows wealth without interest? Yet it is clear here that wealth is only in the just person’s hand to give it to others (verse 3, 5, & 9). The wicked gnash at such generosity, but the just are remembered with gratitude. C. S. Lewis says that our entire economy is built over the 9th and 10th commandments. Where would capitalism be without lying and coveting? Scripture makes clear sainthood runs on divestment. Jesus didn’t say “give until it hurts,” Clarence Jordan says, he said “give until it’s gone.”

And so we see the possibility of a counter-conventional reading of this psalm—one illumined in Jesus. He had no physical descendants or material wealth, and yet he has more spiritual descendants and distributes gifts more liberally than anyone else. He rises from the dead in the early morning. He inaugurates the year of Jubilee in his ministry and church. His righteousness is unending and undoes an economy of servitude, replacing it with an economy of joy. Psalm 112 is not wishful thinking and it is not ideological fortification for “the man.” It is a biblical glimpse of Jesus’ own generosity, and so his happiness, which he showers on anyone who asks—even us wicked, if we can ungnash our teeth long enough to pray for it.


    1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 5, 2017.
    2. I’m riffing here off of Scott Bader-Saye’s book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.
    3. Nancy deClaisse-Walford in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A Strawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 293.
    4. James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster Bible Companion) (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000), 385.
    5. Frank Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, eds. Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150 in Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, trans. Linda Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 174.

Second Reading

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

Nancy Lammers Gross

Throughout the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing the quarreling and division among the Christians in Corinth. In chapter 2, he begins to reflect at a higher theological level on the gospel logic of his plain speech, and apparently “maturity” in Christ. The focus turns to the Spirit of Christ through whom power is demonstrated and wisdom cultivated.  

As in the last three weeks, we will reflect on this passage through four themes.

Called to be saints together

Paul uses the collective “you” to speak of the call of the Corinthian Christians and at the beginning of chapter 2 speaks of the way he came to “you, brothers and sister,” siblings, in Christ. 

The theme of “called to be saints together” is emphasized again as Paul asserts he did not come with lofty words of wisdom precisely so that we would not rely on human wisdom. This is an explicit counterpoint to the claim or boast of wisdom among the followers of particular Corinthian teachers and the resulting divisions. Any quality in their preacher or teacher, or any practices that developed among their individual house churches, cannot separate them from one another. While many were not of noble birth, we know that the house churches represented a broad spectrum of social class. The cross of Christ binds all together. It is the singular reality that undergirds not only the entire letter of 1 Corinthians, but all of Paul’s gospel message. The bold claim in 2:16b that “we have the mind of Christ” is both confidence in the Spirit of God and a prayer.

Together we lack no spiritual gift

It is through the Spirit of God that we understand, comprehend, apprehend, and exercise the gifts bestowed on us by God. Paul’s shift in 2:6 to wisdom among the mature is therefore confusing until it is identified as irony.1 Our pursuit for mature wisdom will be fruitless until we understand Paul’s strategy of using the Corinthians’ interest in human wisdom against them. You want wisdom? I’ll give you wisdom! The secret wisdom which some might seek to attain is none other than the crucified Jesus, the message of the cross, pure foolishness. 

Just when some in Corinth then, or some here and now, begin to think we have achieved mature wisdom, Paul will spring on us in 3:1 our continued foolishness. We are infants. That together we lack no spiritual gift as we await the return of Christ relies entirely on recognizing the gifts of the other and the power of God to bestow gifts as God pleases. It is only the Spirit of God that knows the mind of God, only the Spirit of God who fully understands the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom. Therefore, only in the Spirit of God can we recognize gifts in the other and unite to exercise those gifts so that we may be prepared for the return of Christ. There is no room here for right or wrong or prioritizing according to human wisdom. The rulers of this world and those who follow them are not doomed to perish as punishment, but because faith in them is misdirected, and apart from God we are nothing.

It’s not about you …

The crucified Christ is a constant reminder that our attempts, however subtle, to achieve notoriety or success are misdirected. It must be the greatest challenge for the people of God, no matter our station in life, occupation, or vocation, to constantly frame and reframe life in terms of God’s call upon us and the reverse logic of the gospel. Paul’s challenge is excruciatingly clear. Any attempt to rely upon human facility to justify ourselves or seek a measure of success, or gain human advantage is precisely an “old age” practice. Just about the time we think we have achieved a measure of wisdom or maturity, or our experience or life path is authoritative over another’s, we find ourselves caught in Paul’s trap. The only certitude that counts is absolute confidence in the cross of Christ. The only wisdom that counts is the secret hidden for all ages, God’s grace revealed in the cross of Christ. The only glory that matters is the glory of God. 

God is faithful

Of course we seek our own success and our own security. Of course we disagree, sometimes vehemently, with the ways others practice the Christian faith or what others say in the name of Jesus Christ. Of course we are divided by differing interpretations of the gospel message. If only it was as easy as recognizing that we can order our worship differently and still be faithful. We are, it seems, hopelessly divided. Except that God is faithful. The theme established in 1:8-9, that the God who called us will strengthen us to the end that we may be found blameless, is unbelievable, literally unbelievable, until we believe that God is faithful. The Spirit of God is bestowed on us in the discreet gifts given to each follower. In this we have the mind of Christ that serves as the constant counterweight to our human impulses. Preaching the absolute faithfulness of God, reviewing and rehearsing God’s faithfulness in the past, claiming God’s faithfulness now and for the future, no matter how frightening that future might seem, is to develop the faith muscle memory that leads us to lean on the cross of Christ, and not on human wisdom and effort.

It is, in part, Paul’s uncompromising confidence in the cross of Christ and the faithfulness of God that makes preaching from Paul’s epistles difficult. Paul is simply not embarrassed by the gospel and his confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God extends to a confidence that in the body of Christor the mind of Christwe cannot be separated from one another.


  1.  Richard B. Hays. First Corinthians; Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. John Knox Press: Louisville, 1997, pp. 39ff.