Archive for February, 2014

Sunday, March 2nd

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12–18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16–21
Matthew 17:1–9

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“It’s about the economy, stupid.” James Carville, a campaign strategist for Bill Clinton, coined that phrase during an in-house meeting with his advisers. Whether intentional or not, the remark leaked out to the public and became a slogan in Mr. Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H. W. Bush. Clinton’s campaign had a recession on its side. In March of 1991, days after the ground invasion of Iraq, President Bush had an approval rating of 90%. But when the price of milk, eggs and gas rise and jobs are in jeopardy, the American public isn’t likely to be dazzled by medals won in wars now past. National security fades into the background and few seem interested in the ever present “culture war” issues. That probably explains why, by the following year, 64% of Americans polled disapproved of Mr. Bush’s job performance. He probably didn’t deserve it any more than the current president deserves a bad grade for a bad economy. Most economists agree that the economy usually does what it does based on events over which nobody has much control. It doesn’t seem to make much difference who is in the White House. But in the world of politics, somebody is always to blame. As President Harry Truman so aptly put it, “the buck stops here,” meaning at the oval office. That’s not always fair, but who says life is fair?

Anyway, I digress. The whole point of the accidental slogan was to keep the Clinton presidential campaign focused on issues people care about. In our gospel lesson for Sunday, God lets us know in no uncertain terms what God cares about: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” In other words, “It’s about Jesus, stupid.” That’s not a bad slogan for winding up Epiphany, a season during which the Babe of Bethlehem grows into maturity and his identity comes into ever clearer focus. If Mary’s jubilant song of praise, the song of the angels, Simeon’s Benediction, Anna’s testimony, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ call for us to drop everything and follow him and the Sermon on the Mount have not already made it clear enough, now God speaks with unmistakable clarity. It’s about Jesus. Keep your eye on him.

Discipleship is finally not about subscription to a set of doctrines, obedience to a set of spiritual disciplines or adherence to moral principles. Discipleship is about our relationship to a person, Jesus Christ. Professor Karl Barth was one of the most brilliant teachers and faithful pastors of the 20th Century.  His unfinished Christian Dogmatics consists of several massive volumes drawing deeply from biblical wisdom and centuries of western thought.  A reporter supposedly asked Professor Barth if he could summarize what he had said in all those volumes. Barth thought for a moment and then said: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” By way of disclaimer, I have to add that I have not been able to verify this anecdote independently. But it was relayed to me by a teacher who studied under Professor Barth and in whom I have a good deal of trust. None of this is to say that doctrine, spiritual discipline or morals are not important. They are important and we will have the opportunity during Lent to reflect upon them. Yet in so doing, we cannot lose the focus on our relationship with Jesus. If the Sermon on the Mount teaches us anything, it is that religion without relationship is dead.

The inscription for my Lutheran Church’s logo (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is “God’s work. Our hands.” It’s a good motto, properly understood. Though, as Martin Luther teaches us, “The kingdom of God comes without our prayers…” or anything else we do, nevertheless God graciously offers us the opportunity to take part in the kingdom’s coming. God does indeed work out God’s redemptive purposes for the world through our humble works (and often in spite of them as well!). Nevertheless, at the end of the day it is not our hands or any work, however good and necessary, that stands in the center. So with all due respect for the folks who developed the logo, I could wish for a slogan that magnifies Jesus (or at least mentions him!) a little more and ourselves a little less. It’s about Jesus.

Shine, Jesus, shine

Fill this land with the Father’s Glory;

Blaze Spirit blaze, set our hearts on fire.

Flow, river, flow,

Flood the nations with grace and mercy;

Send forth your Word,

Lord and let there be light!

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 671.

Exodus 24:12–18

The Book of Exodus is the second of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) making up the “Pentateuch” or the “Five Books of Moses.” It has long been understood that Moses was not the author of these works, at least not in the modern sense of that term. Most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These works were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist” or just “J,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source referred to simply as “E.” This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist or “D,” consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the “J” and “E” material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E.

That all sounds nice in theory. But our reading for Sunday illustrates the limitations of such literary analysis in many cases. Exodus 24 is filled with phrases and terminology that is foreign to all of the four known sources. This has led to a dispute over whether we are dealing with a possible fifth source or perhaps incorporation of such source material by J and E, the probable contributors for this section. Old Testament professor Brevard Childs wisely concludes that “the evidence is no longer such as to permit this detailed reconstruction” and that “the better part of wisdom consists in making clear those areas of general agreement.” Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 500. That being said, the one thing all scholars tend to agree upon is that verses 15-18 can be safely attributed to the “P” source.

By now you must be wondering why any of this crap matters. Usually, it doesn’t. Ordinarily, I would not waste time with such noetic perjinkerties, but I believe that here it makes sense to focus on verses 15-18 with the understanding that they come down to us ultimately from the Priestly (“P”) source. As Professor Gerhard Von Rad points out, “P depicts a course of history in which new manifestations, institutions, and regulations are revealed from age to age.” Von Rad, Gernard, Old Testament Theology, Volume I, (c. 1962 by Oliver and Boyd Ltd, pub. Harper &Row Publishers, Inc.) p. 233. At this particular juncture in the Exodus narrative, Moses is being summoned to the top of Mt. Sanai to receive the “tables of stone, with the law and the commandments.” Vs. 12. He instructs Aaron and Hur to remain below with the people. Vs. 14. At the beginning of vs. 15 we are given the Priestly authors’ account of Moses’ direct encounter with God upon Sinai. God appears as a devouring fire in the midst of a dense cloud. While at this point Moses alone can approach God, Moses is to receive detailed instructions for construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in which it will be housed. Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated as priests to serve in the Tabernacle which will henceforth mediate God’s presence in the midst of Israel. All of this is spelled out in Exodus 25-31.

The Priestly history reveals that “new manifestations and institutions” governing worship and faithful living are not directionless. They have a goal, namely, the nearer presence of God. There is, one could say, an incarnational tropism expressed in the relentless approach of God toward his people. The end point is that day when “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest…” Jeremiah 31:33-34. Or, in terms of the New Testament, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them.” Revelation 21:3. This dogged progression of God toward oneness with his people manifested throughout the growth and development of Israelite religious institutions could not have been lost on Matthew whose purpose is to present Jesus as the end point of the law and the prophets. That will become increasingly evident in Matthew’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration.

Psalm 2

This psalm is familiar to all lovers of Handel’s Messiah. Formally, it is an “enthronement psalm” portraying the coronation of an Israelite/Judean King. As such, it reflects a ritual common throughout the ancient world, particularly in Egypt, where the king was designated “God’s son.” The coronation took place in the sanctuary where the newly crowned king received an oracle from the priest legitimating his rule. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 188. This ritual and its accompanying liturgy brings into sharp focus the danger of monarchy and the reason for Israel’s ambivalence toward the institution of kingship. As the prophet Samuel pointed out when the people of Israel first began agitating for a king to rule over them, kingship would bring with it taxation, loss of tribal autonomy and oppressive military conscription. I Samuel 8:10-18. But the more significant threat was theological. It is the Lord “who is enthroned on Israel’s praises.” Anointing a king over Israel amounted to dethroning the Lord as king. I Samuel 8:7. Linkage between the liturgy of the Temple and the coronation of the king is symptomatic of a dangerous synergy. Before long, the worship of God would be swallowed up in adoration of the king. Very soon the institutions of worship and the observances of the covenant would become the religion of the nation state. Faith in Israel’s God would be reduced to sacred ideology legitimating injustice and oppression under the monarchy. This is precisely the evil which the 8th Century prophets rose to denounce.

Nevertheless, this and several other psalms containing coronation liturgies and prayers for the king have made their way into the Psalter. It is important to keep in mind that, however corrupt the institution of monarchy might actually have become in Israel and Judah, the role of the king was to serve as God’s minister for justice. The king is not above the law as the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates. II Samuel 11:1-12:25. Kings of Israel were anointed to “judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice,” “to defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Psalm 72:2-4. The hope that such a king would someday arise remained alive even among prophets most critical of the monarchy, such as Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 23:1-6). It finally evolved into the fevered messianic expectation present throughout Palestine in Jesus’ day. This longing for a messianic liberator was naturally fed by resentment toward Roman domination. Thus, claiming the title “messiah” or “son of God” was a dangerous political assertion. It amounted to a frontal attack on the Roman Empire which maintained that “Caesar is Lord.”

Verse seven of the psalm is echoed first at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 3:17. The devil takes up the refrain throughout his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11. We hear these words once again in Sunday’s lesson on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Matthew 17:5. The allusion to this psalm is intended to inform us that Jesus is the messiah and, among other things, the rightful heir to the throne of David. But as we shall see in our reflections on the gospel lesson, there is far more to be said of Jesus than was ever intended for any Israelite king by the psalm.

2 Peter 1:16–21

The second letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was composed well into the 2nd Century. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16).  The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.

The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.

Sunday’s reading appears to reference the Transfiguration story recounted in the gospels. However, it is possible that the author is referring to a resurrection appearance of Jesus similar to that described in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 28:16-20. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears only briefly to the women at the tomb following his resurrection. He instructs them to tell the rest of the disciples to meet him at a particular mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:8-10. Mark has a similar sequence, but in his gospel the women do not see Jesus, but only an angelic messenger at the tomb. Rather than delivering to the rest of the disciples the instructions to return to Galilee, the women run away from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Mark 16:5-8. In Matthew’s account, the women deliver the message from the risen Christ and the disciples travel to Galilee where they encounter him. Matthew 28:16. So the question is, which “holy mountain” is the author talking about? The Mountain of Transfiguration? Or the mountain in Galilee where the disciples encountered the resurrected Christ?

In either case, the point is that faith rests upon the handing down of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life giving ministry, obedient suffering, faithful death and glorious resurrection. These are not “cleverly devised myths,” but faithful testimony grounded in the witness of the apostles. Vs. 16. Jesus is the “prophetic word made more sure.” He is the “lamp shining in a dark place” by which we read the scriptures. No scripture is a matter of one’s own personal interpretation. For disciples of Jesus, the scripture has one purpose: to illuminate their Master. It is a dreadful mistake, therefore, to read the scriptures as though they were a list of moral rules, a collection of wise sayings or interesting narratives apart from their testimony to Jesus who, for us, gives them their meaning.

Matthew 17:1–9

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Vs. 1. The six days almost certainly harken back to the Exodus narrative in which the glory of the Lord in the midst of a cloud descended upon Mt. Sinai for that period of time. Exodus 24:16. Just as it was on the seventh day that Moses was called to enter into the cloud where the glory of the Lord resided, so Jesus takes his disciples “after six days” to the Mountain of Transfiguration where they enter with him into the cloud. The glory of the Lord which they behold, however, is Jesus himself whose face shines like the sun and whose garments become white as light. Vs. 2. Professor Stanley Hauerwas sees in these “six days” an allusion to the six days of creation after which God rested. Genesis 2:1-3. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 154. This could well be so. As I have noted before, it is not Matthew’s intent to fit Jesus into a single, ridged scriptural paradigm, but rather to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through myriad Hebrew Scriptural figures and traditions. Fellowship with Jesus is indeed the ultimate Sabbath rest and may well be what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:27-30 where he promises rest to all “who labor and are heavy laden.”

Jesus appears in the company of Moses and Elijah. The former is the mouthpiece through whom God delivered the covenant to Israel from Mt. Sinai. The latter is the mouth through which God persistently called Israel back to faithfulness under that covenant. Though ever in tension with one another, the law and the prophets are inseparable. The law (understood as “Torah”) is the concrete shape of Israel’s life of faithful obedience to her God. The prophets speak that same Torah freshly to each generation. In that sense, the prophets are “radicals,” ever calling Israel back to the roots of her faith. Matthew means to make it clear, however, that Jesus transcends both Moses and Elijah. Jesus both extends and fulfills their missions in himself. The voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Vs. 5. When the cloud recedes and the disciples raise their terrified faces once again, they find themselves in the presence of “Jesus only.” Vs. 8.

Once again, we hear the echo of Psalm 2 in the words, “This is my beloved Son.” Vs. 5. Though Matthew is obviously intimating that Jesus is, among other things, the messiah and heir to the throne of David, he is saying far more about Jesus than could ever be said of any Israelite king. For Matthew, the Torah of the Hebrew Scriptures and their great figures can shed light on the person and work of Jesus, but none of them can contain him. Here on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the new wine of the kingdom bursts all of the old skins. Our attention is turned to ‘Jesus only.”

This text amplifies what the gospels all teach us repeatedly. Just when you think you know Jesus, you find out that you don’t. There is always more to Jesus than meets the eye and discipleship is as much about unlearning what we think we know about Jesus as it is learning new things about him. Sometimes I think that the church’s biggest problem is that we have ceased to be amazed by Jesus. The Christ we proclaim is too often the predictably nice, inoffensive, upper middle class, slightly left of center, socially responsible but ever white and ever polite protestant gentleman. Without the beard, bathrobe and sandals he would look just like us. As a friend remarked to me years ago, “Fritz Mondale in a Jesus suit.” Nothing against Fritz, but he and the rest of us just aren’t sufficiently interesting to get most people out of bed on a Sunday morning. That is why we need Jesus!

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Sunday, February 23rd

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
Psalm 119:33–40
1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23
Matthew 5:38–48

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Back in the 80s Kenny Rogers produced a song in the country western genre entitled “Coward of the County.” It tells the story of young man named Tommy whose father died in prison, making his then ten year old son promise “not to do what I have done; to walk away from trouble if you can/ It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek/ I hope you’re not too young to understand/ Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.” Tommy takes dad’s advice, walks away from trouble when he can and acquires a reputation as “the coward of the country.” He marries a young woman named Becky and finds a degree of happiness. Then one day while Tommy is away at work, “the Gatlin boys come calling.” They gang rape Becky and Tommy comes home to find her beaten and ravaged. This is more than Tommy can handle. He walks straight to the bar to confront the Gatlin brothers who at first laugh him to scorn. But their laughter is short lived. Tommy promptly “lets them have it all” and when he is through, “not a Gatlin boy was standing.” The song ends with Tommy saying to his dead father’s picture, “Papa, I should hope you understand/sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man.” If you are interested in hearing the song or reading the full lyrics, check out this link.

You can’t think about this song too much without running into several imponderables. Most of us manage to get through our adult lives without ever having to fight, but we aren’t labeled cowards. We just develop a knack for getting along that comes with maturity. So what was Tommy’s problem? How did he manage repeatedly to get into confrontations from which he had to back down? I can only imagine that he must have had some anger issues going if this scenario of confrontation/retreat happened with such frequency that he got a reputation for cowardice. You also have to wonder about the character of a man who would leave his wife broken and bleeding without comfort or medical attention in order to settle up with the Gatlin boys. I wonder, too, how a kid who had never been in a fight throughout his whole life managed to deck all three Gatlins. If Tommy was packing, you have to wonder where he got the gun, given his father’s admonitions against violence.

Imponderables aside, the point to be made is that the song’s message is a clear frontal attack against Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. According to Kenny Rogers, Jesus was wrong. You can’t just turn the other cheek. Sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man. So who do you believe? Jesus or Kenny? This ought to be a no brainer for disciples of Jesus. Could Jesus’ teaching in Sunday’s gospel be any clearer? Yet since the time of Constantine, the greater part of the church has agreed with Kenny. We bless our respective nations’ wars with our prayers; support believers’ participation in the armed forces through chaplaincies; and glorify war through our participation in civil ceremonies. We have bought into the notion that fighting is a necessity, albeit a tragic one. Now the only remaining question is one of degree: under what circumstances must we fight? What limits, if any, are placed on how we fight?

St. Augustine first developed the “just war” doctrine to which mainline Christianity still subscribes for the most part, though the doctrine has been modified, amplified and expounded upon for centuries. The remarkable thing about this doctrine is how far removed it is from the reality of war and the reasons for and the methods by which wars are fought. That should not surprise us. Architects of just war theory, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther were not soldiers. For them, war was a theological dilemma. How does one reconcile Jesus’ teaching with the needs of the empire for which the church had become the official religion? They attempted to resolve this conflict between the gospel imperatives and imperial geopolitical interests with an abstract doctrine requiring nations to weigh the justice of their cause, the potential for success and the degree of bloodshed likely to occur should war be declared. The problem is that national defense policy seldom has much to do with justice. It is typically determined by national interests that might require propping up tyrannical regimes, exercising pre-emptive strikes and toleration for “collateral damage” otherwise known as non-combatant deaths. All of this is entirely contrary to just war theory. As near as I can tell, there has never been anything like a just war, nor is there ever likely to be such. For these and many other reasons, the just war theory has come under much scrutiny and criticism over the last century.

Perhaps the problem is not so much in the theory as in the assumption that gives rise to the theory, namely, that “sometimes you have to fight.” If it was Kenny Roger’s purpose to prove that point, he picked a poor story. Fighting didn’t accomplish much for Becky who would probably have benefited more from the comfort of her husband and prompt medical treatment than the trouncing of her tormentors. If there had been a time when fighting could have been of any advantage, it would have been when the Gatlin boys came calling-not afterwards. Now in addition to overcoming a horrific trauma, Becky has a boat load of legal problems created by her husband’s belated defense of his manhood. As satisfying as payback might have been for Tommy in the short run, it only created more long term difficulties for him and Becky. This couple would have fared much better if Tommy had heeded his father’s advice, stayed home and cared for his wife and then reported the matter to the police. You don’t have to be stupid to be a man.

It seems to me that the good news Jesus has for us is that we don’t have to fight-to prove our manhood or for any other reason. What Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson this morning is nothing less than what he ultimately does. Jesus confronts the murderous hatred of his enemies with love and forgiveness. He will not call down twelve legions of angels to defend himself from his enemies, nor will he allow his disciples to raise the sword in his defense. He is free to leave his life and the issue of retributive justice in the hands of a God he knows to be his heavenly Father. He invites his disciples to share in that same radical freedom. If fighting cannot be justified to save the only begotten Son of God from a cruel and unjust death, when will fighting ever be justified?

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18

Leviticus is probably the least popular book of the Bible for us Christian folk. For the millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to read the Bible cover to cover, the Book of Leviticus is likely the point at which most of them threw in the towel. Like the second half of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, Leviticus consists of instructions for sacrificial worship, ritual cleansing from contact with unclean animals, lepers, menstruating women and corpses. It spells out in excruciating detail the animals which may and may not be eaten and sets forth numerous ethical injunctions. Many of these laws appear altogether senseless to modern readers. Why is eating lobster an abomination? What is immoral about wearing two different kinds of fabric? What could be objectionable in ordering a hamburger with a milkshake?

Some literary/historical background is warranted here: Modern Hebrew scriptural scholars are in general agreement that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) constitute a compilation of four originally independent written sources. These sources were brought together over a five century period of time (950 to 500 B.C.E.) into what we now know as the “Pentateuch,” which translated means “Five Books.” The sources are known as the Jahwist source or simply “J,” the Elohist source or “E”, the Deuteronomist source or “D” and the Priestly source known as “P.” For a very thorough discussion of this theory of interpretation, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that virtually all of the book of Leviticus comes to us from the P source, the latest contributor(s) to the Pentateuch and likely its final editor(s).

It is helpful also to know that P was compiled during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile beginning at 587 B.C.E. Though much of the material this source contains is very ancient, it was edited and arranged in such a way as to speak to the then present needs of the exiled Jews living in a foreign land. As a minority community, the exiles were naturally under pressure to conform and even meld into the pagan culture of Babylon. The books of Daniel and Esther reflect the difficulties faced by Jews attempting to make their living under foreign domination while remaining faithful to their God and their unique identity.

This week’s reading is part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) which most scholars regard as a distinct unit consisting of an earlier text edited and imbedded within P. Many of its laws are expressed in brief, closely packed clusters. Its style and vocabulary distinguishes the code from the main body of Leviticus. The Priestly source’s frequent reminder that “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” must be understood in the exile context. V. 2. The term “holy” does not mean “morally pure” as we have become accustomed to understand that term. To be “holy” in the biblical sense is to “be set aside for a special purpose.” Consequently, the unique worship practices and ritual behaviors that were part of Israel’s daily life in Palestine took on a new urgency in the land of exile. These practices defined Israel over against the dominant culture and preserved her identity.

In the larger canonical narrative, the P source spells out the shape faithfulness must take for Israel in the land of Canaan to which Moses is leading her. Israel is not to become another imperial Egypt, oppressing her poor and enslaving the sojourners in her land. The people are instructed not to “reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Vss. 9-10. The lectionary people have excluded vss. 3-8 which, in addition to reiterating the commandment to honor parents, gives explicit instructions on how to consume meat offered as a peace offering. This omission is unfortunate as these verses illustrate that Israel did not make distinctions between ethical and ritual requirements. Worship, economics, politics and social intercourse were intended to be all of one piece in Israel. As the prophets frequently point out, worship divorced from the imperative to love the neighbor is an abomination in God’s sight. See, e.g., Amos 5:21-24.

Though it does not make for exciting reading, I believe that the Priestly author(s) contribution to the Hebrew Scriptures has a peculiar relevance for the church today. But we should not be focusing on the particular demands of these rules and statutes, the rationale and meaning of which is lost to us in many instances. Instead, we should look to their function and how they created opportunities for the faith community in exile to define itself against the dominant culture and remind itself of its own unique identity. In my own Lutheran protestant tradition there is very little that distinguishes our daily lives from those of our neighbors. In a supposedly “Christian culture,” you would not expect any such difference. And given that our particular tradition was born into the heart of Christendom and grew out of the state church tradition, it is not surprising that most of us are OK with that. In a Christian nation, why would one expect there to be any difference between faithful discipleship and good citizenship? How could the two ever conflict?

Whether or not you agree with me that the notion of “Christendom” was misbegotten from the get go, you can hardly deny that the society that was Christendom is now all but dead. The towering church buildings still dominating the Americana landscape testify more to a bygone era of socio-political influence than to any present significance. Gone are the days when everyone (or a substantial majority) assumed that church going was an essential part of life. The upcoming generation needs to be convinced that worship in general and Christ in particular merit even a cursory look. You can be a decent person and a good citizen these days without belonging to any faith community. So why belong?

I must confess that when I drive through a Jewish neighborhood on a Friday night and witness families walking together to synagogue, I feel a bit envious. Here is a community whose life is shaped by the biblical narrative. This peculiar people will not be conformed to our cultural norms. Their Sabbath will not be invaded by soccer leagues, karate lessons and after school programs. This is clearly a “holy” people, a people dedicated to its God. Their faith is not just another piece of a well-rounded American life on a par with school, sports and patriotism. Their faith is their life and everything else must find its place in subjection to that faith. I could wish that disciples of Jesus were as diligent in observance of the Lord’s Day; that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were as deeply imbedded in our lives as Sabbath observance is for my Jewish neighbors. I believe that the church needs very much to hear the Priestly writers’ call “to be holy.”

Psalm 119:33–40

For my observations on Psalm 119 generally, see my post for February 16th. Just as last week’s reading consisting of the first section of this psalm began with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph,” so each line of these eight verses making up the fifth section of the psalm begin with the fifth Hebrew letter, “He.”

This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.

1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23

Paul has been contrasting the “mind of Christ” that binds the church together as one Body to the divisiveness of the Corinthian congregation that threatens to tear it apart. Now Paul uses the image of a building to emphasize how the apostolic ministry, and his own ministry in particular, is for the purpose of building up. The church is God’s building. Though Paul’s evangelization laid the foundation and the work of Cephas and Apollos built upon that foundation, the foundation itself is Christ Jesus.

Once again, I marvel at the gall of the “lexicutioners” whose exegetical meat cleavers exercise no restraint. Verses 12-15 are critical to understanding Paul’s argument. For having pointed out how the apostles have each worked in concert to erect the building which is God’s church, Paul notes that the project is still under construction. The Corinthian disciples are also called to the task of this ministry of building up the church. Clearly, their divisiveness illustrates that they are failing in this important calling. Hence, Paul warns the members of the Corinthian congregation to exercise care in their building ministry. For their work will be tested on the last day when the church is delivered to Christ. What does not build up the church will be destroyed. Yet it is significant that Paul adds that the builder himself will be saved. The wrath of God is directed not against the negligent builder, but at his shoddy work.

That being said, it is easier to understand Paul’s warning that “you are God’s Temple.” Vs. 16. Creating divisions within the church amounts to destroying God’s temple. As the church is the means through which Christ’s salvation is present, destroying the church is self-destruction as well. Vs. 17. You can see where Paul is going with all of this. How absurd it is for the building so carefully constructed by the work of the apostles to assert its loyalty to these same apostles as a pretext for its own self demolition! If the members of the Corinthian church truly wish to honor the apostles, they should build upon the foundation the apostles have laid rather than destabilize it.

Matthew 5:38–48

The dictum “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is cited at Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though some commentators on this text argue that this principle was intended to limit retaliation to a proportionate punishment, there is nothing to support this view in the context of Hebrew Scripture. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 256. The concern was that the guilty party bear the consequence of sin such that justice is maintained within the community. See, e.g., Leviticus 24:13-23 (discussion of punishment/compensation commensurate with injury in the context of punishment for blasphemy). Such texts are addressed to the community and its leadership structures, not to the victim or the victim’s family. Nevertheless, over the course of time they came to be used in support of personal claims for compensation. In 1st Century Palestine monetary damages had largely replaced retributive vengeance, though some rabbinical authorities questioned the propriety of this. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 129.

Jesus renders these disputes moot, however, in forbidding retaliation of any sort. Lest there be any doubt about the absolute nature of this command, Jesus goes on to say that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Vs. 39. In his fine book, Walter Wink argues that a blow to the right cheek would come as a back handed slap. Turning the left cheek would make another blow awkward and perhaps ineffective for a right handed opponent. Thus, Jesus is not really speaking of non-resistance to evil, but rather of non-violent resistance. Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, (c. 1988 Augsburg Fortress) p. 101-102.  As much as I respect Professor Wink, I think he is trying too hard to read Gandhi into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not see non-violence as a strategy to achieve a larger goal or to “make a statement.” He is simply calling upon his disciples to respond to hatred and violence the way he will soon confront it himself-by loving his enemies and leaving defense of his life and retributive justice in the hands of his heavenly Father. I also do not place much significance on the fact that a blow to the face with one’s fist (if that is all Jesus is talking about) is less serious than the permanent damage contemplated by the Hebrew Scriptural sayings. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he is referring merely to a slap in the face with the back hand. Moreover, I have visited enough ERs to know that a blow to the face with one’s fist can do some serious damage to eyes and teeth. Jesus would have us know that refusing to resist evil can result in our getting pretty banged up, perhaps even nailed to a cross. But whether it is effective, ineffective or counter-productive, non-violence is always the way of Jesus and his disciples. Violence is never an arrow in their quiver. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings about lawsuits, forced conscription and response to beggars demonstrate that coercive force of all kinds is off limits. This is not to say that non-violence is incapable of bringing about substantial social and political changes for the better. The lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrate that it sometimes does. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus do not practice peace for the sake of beneficial change. They practice peace because that is the way of Jesus, period.

In verse 43 Matthew cites Leviticus 19:18 which states in part, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the verse does not sanction hatred against enemies, it is clear that the term “neighbor” applies to “the sons of your own people” which would exclude gentiles as well as these “cut off” from among the people of Israel. Jesus clearly means to extend the command to love one’s neighbor to the enemy. To be clear, the enemy is not simply an unpleasant relative or a bothersome neighbor. The enemy is the one who violently attacks you and takes your property. To be sure, there were plenty of figures in antiquity who urged kindness toward enemies as a stratagem for neutralizing their malevolent intent. But Jesus does not command his disciples to love their enemies for any strategic reason. They are to love because they are, like their Master, children of their heavenly Father who loves all people, good and bad, wildly, freely and indiscriminately. This intense love that cannot be blunted by hatred and rejection is the perfection of God that soon will be manifest in the destiny of Jesus. Perfect love exercised in an imperfect world takes the shape of the cross. It winds up dead, but it doesn’t stay that way.

In sum, The Sermon on the Mount makes no rational sense apart from Jesus Christ. It does not fit into any ethical system; it does not support any coherent platform for social change; it does not fit within the confines of any ideological framework. Without Jesus, the Sermon is nothing more than a smorgasbord of disjointed sayings from which one may pick and choose, providing whatever context will give it the desired meaning. Interpreted through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross, however, it illuminates the new life to which Jesus invites us. See I Corinthians 1:20-25.

Perhaps John Howard Yoder says it best of all: “This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as ‘the war of the lamb,’ has the peculiar disadvantage-or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view-of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to men of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ.” If Jesus was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in man of the character of God himself, then this one argument for pacifism collapses. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus (c. 1994, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 244.

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Sunday, February 16th

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 119:1–8
1 Corinthians 3:1–9
Matthew 5:21–37

O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Two men were seated in a darkened movie theater. One, Curtis Reeves, a retired police captain with a distinguished record of public service. The other, Chad Oulson, a husband and father of a young toddler. Both men were gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens enjoying an American entertainment staple-going to the movies. A dispute arose over Oulson’s use of a cell phone as the movie was starting. Reeves complained. Oulson ignored him. Reeves became increasingly vocal in his complaints. Oulson turned to confront him. Tempers flared. Oulson threw his popcorn on Reeves. Reeves pulled out a revolver and shot Oulson, killing him and wounding his wife.

How did this trivial dispute over theater etiquette erupt into a violent confrontation ending in death? I suspect testosterone had something to do with it. A young man is insulted and disrespected in front of his wife. An older man, having been an authority figure all his life, finds his authority ignored and finally challenged. Each feels his manhood is on the line. Neither can afford to back down. They are both trapped in a spiral of escalating anger taking them where I suspect neither of them really wanted to go. The end, I am sure, is not what either Reeves or Oulson could have imagined.

Anger is a dangerous emotion. When it seizes control, it robs a person of rationality and common sense. When people are angry, they make rash statements they later regret. They make poor decisions. In the extreme, anger leads to violence. At the dawn of history Cain became angry with his brother Abel. God warned Cain with these words: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7. Tragically, Cain could no more master his anger than could Reeves and Oulson. So history began with brother murdering brother out of anger. And so it continues.

Jesus was right on the mark when he equated anger with murder. The latter frequently follows upon the former. Relatively few murders are committed in “cold blood.” There is almost always provocation of some sort, either real or imagined. For that reason, Jesus counsels his disciples to nip anger in the bud. The time for reconciliation is when anger first rears its ugly head. If you have reason to believe that someone is angry at you or you become aware of anger against someone else, drop what you are doing-even if you are in the middle of prayer-and be reconciled. The earlier anger is quenched, the less time it has to breed hatred and violence.

There is no place for anger in the church. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, “Jesus will not accept the common distinction between righteous indignation and anger.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 143. Jesus meant for his community of disciples to be an “anger free zone.” Reconciliation requires us to put ourselves into the skin of the very person with whom reconciliation is sought; to see ourselves through his/her eyes; to be ready and willing to let go of our anger. I cannot do that on my own. I am too blinded by my rage; too convinced of the rightness of my own cause; too hurt and fearful to expose my wounds to those I feel have injured me. I need a community of honesty and truthful speech to help me diagnose the source of my deep seated anger. Before I can risk reconciliation, I need to know that I am embraced by the Body of Christ where I can be certain that the sins brought to light in the process of confession will be forgiven. The church is the one place where anger must not be allowed the last word. It is the place where anger is recognized, exposed, confessed, forgiven and reconciled out of existence.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

This lesson is for people on the brink of a new frontier. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.

The Book of Deuteronomy is connected with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood. More than likely, the Book of Deuteronomy is the product of a few authors working with various ancient traditions brought together by the final author/editor into the single canonical narrative we have today.

The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead.

It seems we are always on the frontier of something. Seniors in high school look forward with anticipation to June which holds for them a new existence, whether in college, the workforce, the armed forces or, sadly, the increasingly challenging search for work. Embarking on married life is a similar departure into unknown territory. Those of us beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging bodies understand that we finally will face the ultimate frontier where we will be compelled to rely upon the steadfast love of our Good Shepherd more than ever before. Each frontier holds both promise and threat; possibilities and temptations; invitations to faith and the danger of unbelief. In each instance, we are faced with life and death decisions. Whether we are the children of Israel at the border of Canaan, the nation of Judah picking itself up again after years of foreign domination, or churches here in the Meadowlands struggling to understand how to be the church in a society that no longer needs the church; God’s people are always at the edge of some new frontier. Moses’ admonition: Chose life. Vs. 19. Cleave to God; obey God; trust God. Remember both who and whose you are.

Moses promises prosperity and wellbeing for the people should they choose obedience to the covenant and destruction should they disobey. As noted in last week’s post on Psalm 112, this testimony is true as far as it goes. The commandments were given to order life around faithfulness to God and love of neighbor. In a community shaped by these commands, faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. But no community is ever so thoroughly shaped by the covenant that it is free from injustice. Moreover, when the people of God are thrown into historical circumstances where the covenant community is shattered and the covenant no longer carries any weight, this simple equation breaks down altogether. This is what Walter Brueggeman would call the “state of disorientation” where faithfulness results not in blessing, but in suffering, persecution and even death. Brueggeman, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job as well as many of the lament Psalms afford a corrective, reminding us that very often the faithful suffer grievously even as the wicked prosper. The ultimate test of faith, then, comes when faithfulness seems ineffective, futile and even counterproductive. It is precisely this sort of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Psalm 119:1–8

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with no less than 176 verses. It is also just two chapters away from the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, which is a mere two verses. So much for Bible trivia.

Like Psalm 112 from last week, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. However, instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the first section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph.” The next section has each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter, “beth.” So it goes for twenty more sections through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet ending in the letter “tav.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.

I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40. Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”

The first eight verses of Psalm 119 making up our reading begin with a proclamation of blessing for those who walk in the Torah of the Lord. This is a good reminder that genuine prayer arises out of our covenant relationship with Israel’s God into which us gentile folks come through baptism. It is only because God speaks that prayer is possible. Prayer is always responsive. It does not presume upon unfettered access to God as a matter of right, but seizes upon God’s commands and promises as grounds for praise, petition and lament. It is for this reason that the Psalms are the best possible resource for learning to pray. Reading one every morning and one each night is the best medicine I know. That said, I think it is permissible to break up Psalm 119 into a few days.

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

Last week in I Corinthians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul was contrasting the spirit of divisiveness at work in the Corinthian church with the Spirit of God who forms in the church “the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 1:10-17; I Corinthians 2:14-16. In this Sunday’s reading Paul goes on to explain that he has been unable to address the Corinthian church as spiritual people because they are still people of “flesh.” Like nursing infants, they are not ready for the solid food of the “hidden wisdom of God.” I Corinthians 2:6-8. Here it is worth noting that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh (“sarkos”) to describe people whose minds are dominated by worldly ways and, more specifically, the sort of divisiveness and strife that characterizes pagan culture in Corinth. This “fleshly” thinking is informing the conduct of the congregation, preventing it from growing into the mind of Christ and functioning as Christ’s Body.

Many misguided criticisms have been made of Paul for disparaging the human body and the physical world with a dualistic theology valuing spirit over matter. Paul does no such thing. In fact, Paul’s favorite expression for the church is “the Body of Christ.” This is not the sort of expression you would expect from a world hating gnostic! How could someone holding the body in contempt simultaneously speak of that body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit?” I Corinthians 6:19. When Paul speaks critically of “the flesh” he is not disparaging the human body or the material world. He is instead referring to an attitude, outlook, worldview dominated by selfishness and the will to power.

Paul points out that the apostolic witness is united in its testimony to Christ. The focus should not be upon the individual apostles who have ministered at Corinth. Just as the apostles, Apollos, Cephas and Paul work in concert, one evangelizing for Christ, another nourishing for Christ; so the church ought to be living in harmony through Christ. At the end of the day, the one who plants, the one who waters and the one who reaps can each be replaced. It is God who gives the growth. Paul is laying the foundation here for his extensive discussion of the church as the Body of Christ and the unity in love necessary to sustain it, all to be presented in the coming chapters.

Matthew 5:21–37

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus goes on to explain what he meant in last week’s reading when he told his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. He does so by taking the Ten Commandments and turning them up on high heat. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will be employing the same formula repeatedly: “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” Jesus will finally point out that all the law and the prophets boil down to love of God and love of neighbor. But that is no slackening of the law. To the contrary, love demands even more than the letter of the law can deliver.

The Commandment forbids killing. There is a good deal of literature in which Old Testament scholars bicker over whether the commandment should be interpreted “Thou shalt not kill” or whether it should be rendered “thou shalt not commit murder.” But Jesus renders that sterile debate moot. So far from taking a human life, the disciple must not even harbor anger or engage in name calling. Vss. 21-22. Moreover, it is not enough merely to hold one’s peace. A disciple is under obligation to seek reconciliation with a person s/he knows to have a grudge against him or her.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Vss. 23-24. The sacrifice envisioned here is not an obligatory one, but a voluntary one expressing devotion or thanksgiving and the desire to draw near to God. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 232. The point made here is that devotion to God cannot be divorced from the disciple’s relationship to his or her neighbor. As will be made clear in Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, God is rightly served chiefly through caring for one’s neighbor. Matthew 25:31-46.

Next Jesus addresses the commandment against adultery. It is noteworthy that the focus here is exclusively on men. This is because, technically speaking, adultery was a crime of one man against another. A woman was regarded as in some sense the property of her husband and, as such, not an independent agent. That would not necessarily make her blameless by any means, but the assumption seems to be that the male bears primary responsibility for the crime and for its prevention. In a culture such as our own where women are increasingly on a par with their male counterparts in all areas of life, the injunction against lust and the responsibility for adultery attach to them as well. That said, there remains a significant power imbalance between men and women leading to abuse ranging from verbal sexual harassment to rape in numerous venues. Perhaps, then, it is premature to adjust the focus of this text overly much.

A word or two about “lust” is in order. Lust should not be equated with sexual attraction. It is rather a ruthless desire to possess and control with no recognition of the rights, needs or welfare of the other. Instead of building up and supporting faltering marriages, lust preys upon them. Indeed, it is the nature of lust to exploit the weak and vulnerable. While rape is the most blatant and ugly expression of lust, it can also masquerade as love and compassion-such as when a pastor, counselor or therapist sexually exploits a parishioner/patient.

Lust is not limited to sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods from iphones to the latest clothing is perhaps the most destructive form of lust in existence. Our opulence is leading to the relentless exploitation of our planet and the poorest and most vulnerable communities inhabiting it. Given the danger lust poses to the bonds of trust and faithfulness needed to sustain community, it is not surprising that Jesus calls for extreme measures to prevent its taking hold.

Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture, Jesus’ treatment of the subject makes for some uneasiness in the pews of just about every congregation. When attempting to interpret this passage in our present context, one needs to keep in mind the status of women in Jesus’ day. As previously explained, a woman was typically considered in some sense the property of a man. If she was unmarried, she belonged to her father. If married, to her husband. The means of self-support for independent women were few and not enviable. A woman divorced from her husband and rejected by her father was in a plight as desperate as the woman widowed without grown children to support her. Therefore, to divorce one’s wife usually consigned her to a life of abject poverty-or worse. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus did not look kindly upon casual divorce and remarriage as it constituted a thin legal gloss for adultery and abandonment. There is, we must acknowledge, a difference between such casual divorce and a divorce in which both partners agree or are made to take responsibility for each other’s financial well-being and that of any children of the marriage.

That having been said, there remains every reason to support marriages and discourage divorce. Unfortunately, efforts by religious groups to preserve marriage have frequently focused on making divorce more difficult. Resistance to so-called “no fault” divorce was strong in the 60s and 70s. The failure of marriages, however, has less to do with laws facilitating divorce and more to do with the breakdown of community resulting in young families having to locate in areas where they are virtual strangers left to struggle with family pressures on their own. Extended families, affiliations with church/synagogue, stable neighborhoods and social organizations fostering friendship and support are now the exception rather than the rule for many young couples. Economic insecurity and unemployment add to these strains. We need to recognize that failing marriages are not the cause, but the symptom of a failing society and address the disease rather than focusing on the symptom.

“Do not swear at all…” Vs. 33. How many times haven’t you heard it said: “To be perfectly frank with you…” “Let me be honest with you…” “To tell you the truth…” Sometimes I am tempted to respond to these prefaces by remarking, “So, now you are being honest with me. Does that mean you have been lying through your teeth for the last ten minutes of this conversation? Are you not always honest when you talk to me? That is the problem with oaths. The fact that you feel the need to take one indicates that you know your word is not trustworthy enough and that you need to invoke the threat of divine punishment in order to make other people believe what you are saying. Jesus maintains that, since a disciple is aware that every word spoken is said in the presence of God, an oath is not necessary. No speech should ever be anything less than truthful.

Truthful speech is a habit of the heart. It is not an inborn trait. In fact, deception is our default behavior. The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, justify hurtful actions and rationalize plans that we know deep down are selfish, self-serving and destructive to others. In my former life as an attorney, I listened to hundreds of people lie under oath. Most of them would probably have passed a polygraph test with flying colors. That is because when we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we begin to believe it. It becomes the truth for us. The same thing happens collectively. When a lie is repeated again and again and again on television, radio and over the internet, it gains traction no matter how demonstrably false it might be. Advertisers and political campaign managers realize this and have made productive us of it. Honesty is an empty virtue among people who have lost the ability to discern the truth.

Nobody understands the difficult art of learning to tell the truth better than a recovering addict who has gone through a twelve step program. Regaining and maintaining sobriety requires an unflinching commitment to telling the truth in the company of people equally committed to that goal. The fact is, we are all addicts to the lies we tell to comfort ourselves. What we need is to be accepted into a community dedicated to truthful speech where our lies can be laid bare and rejected; where through repentance and forgiveness we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and our God as he truly is. That community is called church.

There are more sermons in this gospel lessen than one can shake a stick at. It is best just to choose one and run with it.

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Sunday, February 9th

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 58:1–12
Psalm 112
1 Corinthians 2:1–16
Matthew 5:13–20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Last night the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. I am doing my best not to gloat, but it’s hard. Having grown up just across the bay from Seattle, I have a kind of hometown tie with the Seahawks. For the last couple of weeks I have been warned by everyone from seasoned sportscasters to the kids in my confirmation class that the Broncos were sure to run away with the game. Now I feel vindicated.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, perhaps it is that predicting outcomes is a risky business. I am sure the sportscasters had good reasons for favoring the Broncos. I have no doubt that they made careful evaluations of each player, the game strategies employed by the respective teams along with their relative strengths and weaknesses. But there are also important factors that cannot be measured, such as a team’s dangerous overconfidence, its underestimation of its adversary, the personal emotional state of key players on the night of the game resulting from events and circumstances we cannot know. It is probably a good thing we don’t know. Sporting events would not be very entertaining if we all knew in advance how they are going to come out.

So if we cannot even predict the outcome of a football game, how can we possibly predict the effects of implementing complex legislation affecting the lives of millions? Or how can we anticipate the consequences of military action in countries made up of numerous ethnic groups with complex and often conflicting interests? It seems to me that history has proven again and again that she is a beast too wild and willful to be tamed by the likes of us mortals. We discover again and again that our actions bring about consequences we never dreamed of. Who could have predicted back in the days when we were fighting fascism in Europe side by side with our Soviet allies that we were building up a nation soon to become our nuclear rival and cold war enemy? Who could have imagined that the bands of Afghan guerrilla fighters we armed in the 1980s to annoy the Soviet Union would evolve into a terrorist organization capable of inflicting horrendous attacks on our soil two decades later when the Soviet Union was only a memory? Of course, not all of our efforts to steer the course of history end so badly and even those that do often yield unexpected benefits. But the point is that, whether beneficial or detrimental, the consequences of our actions seldom fit within the limited scope of our intentions. That is why I have never been a fan of what has come to be called “Christian Realism.” Though this philosophy has never precisely been defined, Christian Realists maintain generally that the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be realized on earth due to the innately corrupt tendencies of all human communities. The intractable reality of human sin at work in society forces believers to compromise the ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Human perfectibility is an illusion-and a dangerous one at that. Recognizing that we human beings are inherently self interested and that this tendency infects all we do, we must settle for whatever limited measure of imperfect justice we can achieve by whatever means are required.

There is some truth in all of this. Clearly, we are not able to perfect ourselves and can hardly imagine what human perfection looks like. Obviously, our motives are infected by self interest such that we cannot even trust our best intentions. But it seems to me that if we are to discard the values of the Kingdom of Heaven (and the Sermon on the Mount in particular) we need to ponder what is left to us. For the life of me, I have never been able to distinguish between the ethics of Christian Realism and Joseph Fletcher’s “situation ethics,” under which the ends justify the means. Love, according to Fletcher, is the objective; therefore, if the end is to achieve a result that best serves the need of one’s neighbor, one ought not to quibble about whether the means violate some lesser moral principle.

The problem, though, is that we never know the ends because we cannot foresee the consequences of our choices. We know what we hope the ends will be. We can make an educated guess about what they will be, but as yesterday’s Super Bowl demonstrates, the reliability of such guesses is doubtful. That is precisely why, after over fifty-thousand American dead in Vietnam, we finally had to withdraw and consider how to tell the bereaved families that their loved ones died for a mistake. Instead of the ends justifying the means, it seems the means have a perverse way of corrupting the ends. The greater good for which we abandon honesty, peacemaking, and mercy never materializes and we are left with evil at both ends and in the middle. From the days of Constantine the church has gotten sucked into the vortex of real politic in hopes of turning history in what we imagine is God’s chosen direction. The world seldom gets any better as a result, but the church frequently gets worse as it internalizes the rules (or lack thereof) of the game it has learned to play.

Jesus calls his disciples to a humbler yet more difficult task than turning history in God’s direction. Disciples are told to be salt and light for the world. Salt doesn’t change the meat. It only seasons it. Light does not transform the world. It simply illuminates it. So far from compromising the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus would have us live those values defiantly in the heart of a world that rejects them. The Sermon on the Mount, from which we will be hearing in our Gospel readings throughout the season of Epiphany, was not intended to be an unattainable ideal. It was given to the church as a tool through which the Holy Spirit forms in us the mind of Christ (as St. Paul would put it). Disciples of Jesus are to practice truthful speech-even when doing so will surely offend and estrange them from would be allies in a common cause for good. Disciples are to practice non-violence even when the use of limited violence appears to be the best hope of removing an oppressive tyrant from power and promises to prevent even greater violence and injustice. Disciples are called to be peacemakers, merciful and forgiving-even when none of these things seems to be accomplishing anything. Indeed, they are called to be faithful to Jesus even when such faithfulness only makes matters worse.

The problem with Christian Realism is that it focuses on the wrong reality. Certainly, sin and human fallibility are real. We ignore them at our peril. Yet Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that the only enduring reality is the Kingdom of Heaven which has drawn near. In the ultimate sense, we know how the game will end. Jesus tells us that the earth will belong to the meek; that the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied and that the mourners will be comforted. What is more, the blessings of that victory are shared with us mysteriously even now as Jesus invites us to begin living today the way we will be living eternally. Only so can the world discover that the way things are is not the way things have to be nor the way things always will be. It is enough to belong to Jesus. Season and illuminate; but leave history to the Lord of history.

Isaiah 58:1–12

Some historical background might be helpful in understanding this reading. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was decisively defeated by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. who then sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and carried off a substantial number of the leading citizens of Judah into exile. In 538 B.C.E., Babylonia fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Cyrus issued an edict allowing for the return of exiled peoples such as the Jews to their land of origin and authorized the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The following year, a small group of Jews returned from Babylon and began laying the foundations for the new temple. Due to political and economic uncertainty arising from instability within the Persian Empire, this work came to a stop. So far from the glorious future forecast by the prophecies of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), life for the returning exiles proved to be harsh and difficult leading many to cynicism and despair. This is the context for the preaching attributed to Third Isaiah, Isaiah 56-66.

The prophet faces a tough audience. Consider that most of the exiled Jews elected to remain in Babylon where they had managed to build new lives for themselves. The returning exiles were the faithful few inspired by the preaching of Second Isaiah to stake everything on the prophet’s assurance that God would do a “new thing” for them. They fully expected their return to the Promised Land to be a triumphal homecoming accompanied by miraculous acts of salvation rivaling the Exodus from Egypt. Upon arrival, they found a ruined land occupied by hostile peoples. It appeared as though they had been cruelly deceived. One can hear the bitterness in their exasperated cries to the God who so disappointed them: “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?” Vs. 3. As the people see it, they have demonstrated the ultimate act of faith in returning to Palestine. On top of that, they are fasting and humbling themselves in an expression of repentance for all of Israel’s past sins. Can God ask any more than this?

Apparently, God does expect more. We are back to the familiar confusion between ritual and liturgical compliance aimed at pleasing God and obedience to God’s command to care for the neighbor. Evidently, their pious fasting does not prevent the rich from pursuing their unjust and oppressive economic practices. Nor does it prevent the people from quarreling to the point of violence. God is not impressed with shows of humility that do not reflect a true change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, responds to the complaint of the people by instructing them in what true fasting looks like: “to loose the bonds of wickedness:” “let the oppressed go free;” “share your bread with the hungry;” “bring the homeless poor into your house;” “cover” the naked; and “not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” Vss. 6-7.

Of all these examples of proper fasting, the call to “bring the homeless poor into your house” is by far the most jarring. I will cheerfully contribute items of food and donate cash to feed and house the homeless. I have even spent nights at homeless shelters assisting in this good work and spending time with the homeless poor. But taking these people into my home? That is a bridge too far. Sharing my private family space demands too much. I don’t want to share my bathroom with these people I hardly know. I don’t want their laundry mixed up with mine. I must confess that I probably would not sleep very soundly under the same roof with the homeless people I have encountered at shelters. I have to admit that the prophet has rattled my cage with this utterance!

Yet the prophet’s words have taken some faithful disciples beyond mere discomfort. Ten years ago, a group of Christians in Durham, North Carolina, launched a community of hospitality in a historic neighborhood called Walltown. Since then, the Rutba House has welcomed folks who are homeless, returning home from prison and others who just need a safe place to land. Now In his new book, Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests (c. 2013 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pub. Convergent), Rutba co-founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shares everyday stories of the people he has encountered. To learn about some of these remarkable accounts of transformation taking place through the exercise of hospitality, I invite you to read a comprehensive interview with Wilson-Hartgrove at this link. It always shakes me up when I hear about someone who actually takes Jesus and the prophets seriously. It makes me wonder whether I do!

Psalm 112

Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs, instructing all who hear to live long and well by conforming their lives to God’s righteous commands that underlie the framework of the universe. As I have said many times before, I believe one must regard the wisdom sayings as “portholes” through which the wisdom teachers invite us to view the world. They offer some unique insights into the nature of reality that can help us make sense of our experiences. As portholes, however, the view they offer us is limited. The reader must always keep in mind the fact that there are other portholes offering views from different perspectives. No one (save God) stands on such lofty ground as to be able to see all things from all angles. Thus, wisdom literature places a high value on humility and openness to continual learning.

With that caveat, Psalm 112 affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. As such, it is characterized, rightly I think, by Walter Brueggemann as a psalm of “orientation.” It expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. Augsburg Publishing House, 1984) p. 25. The Lord blesses the person “who greatly delights in his commandments.” Vs. 1. Such a person is endowed with wealth, protection from evil and God’s constant presence. Vss. 3-4. It is well with the person “who deals generously and lends, who conducts his/her affairs with justice.” Vs. 5. There is much truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.

But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, the same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. Vs 7. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.

It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though most scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. I think it altogether likely that the wisdom material, which was common in the royal courts of 8th and 9th Century B.C.E. nations throughout the near east, may well have found its way into the courts of the Judean and Israelite kings of that period also. Consequently, it is entirely plausible that this psalm has roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies.

Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The two psalms share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion. The formal similarities between the two psalms are also striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off the half strophes. So rendered in English, the first verse of our psalm might read:

A song of praise to the Lord is seemly;

Blessed is the one who fears the Lord

Commandments of the Lord are greatly delighted in by such a person.

I know. The paraphrase is poor and the syntax stinks. But you get the idea.

1 Corinthians 2:1–16

As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. Vs. 16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.

It is for this reason that Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” when he first preached to the Corinthians. He could easily foresee that, in a church made up of Jews and gentiles of multiple persuasions, there were bound to be endless disputes over moral and religious matters. We all know that when the Bible is invoked as a rule book to settle disputes, the result is usually a shouting match between entrenched ideological positions whose partisans each claim that “the Bible speaks clearly on this matter!” Paul will have none of that! He starts with the presupposition that the Corinthian church with all of its problems is nevertheless the Body of Christ and every person in that congregation is a member of that Body. I Corinthians 12:27. Thus, there can be no question of amputating limbs and cutting out organs that seem not to be functioning in an optimal fashion. There is no alternative other than for all members of the congregation to accept one another and live together with one another as one Body. Such an existence can only be maintained by love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. That is a tall order, but Paul will have it no other way.

According to Paul, true wisdom is imparted by the Spirit. This Spirit is not some abstract, faceless new age force. It is the Spirit of Jesus whose faithful obedience to God and love for his church led to crucifixion by “the rulers of this age.” Vs. 8. Thus, contrary to some rather inept criticisms of Paul by a few commentators who feel that he had little or no concern for anything outside of the church, Paul knows full well that Jesus was crucified for the life he lived and that the church continues to bear his cross as it continues his life in the world. As the mind of Christ is formed in the church, the Body of Christ will continue to suffer until the oppressive tyranny of evil is swallowed up in love. That love which conquers all is revealed in Christ and made present to the community of faith even now. Vss. 9-10.

Matthew 5:13–20

There is surely too much in these verses for any one sermon. There is a risk that any preacher trying to do justice to the text might well lose sight of the forest for the trees. Again, it is critical to recall that these words gain their force and significance precisely because they are spoken by Jesus who declares in both word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. This kingdom makes claims on its subjects that are contrary to the claims made by Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem for loyalty and obedience. The kingdom of heaven and these existing kingdoms are rivals from the get go. The difference between life under the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus makes clear to his disciples that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Vs. 20.

In verses 13-16 Jesus declares that his disciples are to be “light” and “salt.” The purpose of a lamp is to illuminate the room in which it is placed. It is not there to call attention to itself. So also, nobody I know has ever come back from dinning out raving about the wonderful salt on a steak. Salt is there to enhance the flavor of the meat. You are not supposed to notice it. If you do, it means that the cook has over seasoned the meat. While the disciples’ works are to be seen by the world, they are to glorify the Father rather than call attention to the disciples. Vs. 16. Keep in mind, though, that these admonitions follow immediately upon Jesus’ promise that, like the prophets before them, his disciples will experience persecution, rejection and hatred from the rival kingdoms still asserting jurisdiction over a world Jesus has now claimed for the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet it is precisely in this militant loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven that elicits so much opposition that creation is “seasoned” and the nature of God’s reign is “illuminated.”

In addition to flavoring and preserving, salt was used in the ancient world as a cleansing agent, to brighten the light of oil lamps and to increase the efficiency of baking ovens. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 212. It was recognized in antiquity as a fundamental human necessity. See, e.g., Sirach, 39:26. Matthew goes on to make the point that, while salt is used to flavor, purify and cleanse other items, there is nothing with which salt itself can be restored once its seasoning capacity has been lost. It is difficult to understand how this could occur unless the salt were somehow diluted with some other substance. But perhaps that is the point. Salt is so basic that it cannot be “unsalted” no matter what anyone does to it.

Jesus points out that a city set on a hill cannot be hid any more than a lamp can be concealed by placing it under a bushel basket. Note well that any lamp used anywhere in the First Century would have required a flame. Placing such a lamp under a bushel basket to conceal it would only result in the basket catching fire generating further illumination. Consequently, persecution of the disciples will not quench the light of God’s reign, but only enhance it. I should add that some commentators render the term translated “bushel basket” in the NRSV as “bowl,” pointing out that the reference is most likely to a tightly woven, air tight basket used for extinguishing household lamps without making excessive smoke. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 102. I don’t find much support for that in the text. The word at issue, “modios,” means simply “a grain measure containing about 8.75 liters or almost one peck.” This according to my trusty Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, W. Bower, edited by W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich (c. 1957, University of Chicago Press). Nevertheless, if Schweizer and likeminded folk are correct, then I have read too much into the text. Either way, though, the point remains. It would be absurd to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp only to extinguish it again. It is something that simply would not be done. So also the light of God’s reign will not be suppressed.

Verse 17 shifts focus to the place of the law and the prophets. Matthew is emphatic that Jesus has no intention of abolishing the Torah. Every last provision remains valid and the disciples are not to disregard any of it. Yet as we shall see when the Sermon progresses, Jesus radically re-orientates the law and the prophets. It is not enough merely to follow the letter of the law. This is the righteousness of Jesus’ opponents which makes the law an end in itself. The better righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples is grounded in love so deep and profound that it embraces even the enemy. Such indiscriminant love is the perfection of God to which Jesus calls his disciples. Matthew 5:43-48. “For Matthew, the love-commandment became the principle of interpretation for the law.” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” published in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. 1963 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 104.

The practical effect of this is that Matthew interprets the law always in the service of love for God and love for the neighbor. The law is the servant, never the master of love. Consequently, this love commandment can “be critically directed against individual commandments of the Old Testament itself.” Ibid. 103-104. Matthew is no antinomian. The law and the prophets remain valid, though of course, they must be interpreted. Blind obedience to the letter of the law leads only to arrogance and obscures the spirit of God’s commandments. (Literalists who insist “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” take note!) Interpretation is essential and it is only a question of what guides it. For Matthew, the loadstar of biblical interpretation is love. In his view, an interpretation of the law which leads to contempt for the neighbor or places a stumbling block in front of a person responding to God’s gracious invitation to come under his blessed reign is always going to be wrong, not matter how rationally, thoroughly and scripturally supported.

It seems to me that anyone preaching on this text must choose whether to focus on the “salt and light” theme or the role of the law and the prophets. Fitting both into one sermon will likely do justice to neither. The latter theme discussing the place of the law and the prophets fits nicely with the reading from Isaiah, making the point Jesus will be explaining further on, namely, that obedience to God’s commands is accomplished through love for one’s neighbor. Matthew 22:34-40.

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