FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
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.
In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions the wisdom and rationale for an ancient saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” His lyrical musings run contrary to logic, and particularly the prevailing logic of our current administration that believes firmly, not merely in good fences, but in twenty foot walls between neighbors. I am captive to that same kind of thinking myself. I insisted that the boundaries of the property I recently purchased on Cape Cod be meticulously defined with permanent markers at each corner. There are practical reasons for doing that. It strains neighborliness to the breaking point when one must point out that the fence for the house next door is beyond the property line and must eventually come down. Yet there is more than practicality at work in establishing borders-whether between neighbors or between nations. The limits of my lot determine the limits of my jurisdiction, my right to do as I please with what is mine. Stepping across the line uninvited poses a challenge. It is inherently threatening.
The Bible reminds us, however, that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Even the land of Canaan given to the people of Israel was to be held in trust for its true owner. The land was to be a demonstration plot for God’s gentle reign under the terms of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Israel’s ownership was never absolute. When Israel forgot the terms of the covenant and began to treat the land as hers, she lost it. It is sobering to recall that every nation, including the United States, occupies land that once belonged to someone else. Nation states are ephemeral. Ours is less than three hundred years old-a fraction of the years dominated by Rome, Persia, Greece, Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt. The borders of our empire will one day be occupied by a people who walk across them without knowing or caring. The lines along which wars were fought, deals were negotiated and walls built will be forgotten. That should give us pause and force us to ask ourselves why we so jealously guard the borders to our nation, the boundaries of our property and the personal space around ourselves.
Frost tells us that “spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do [good fences] make good neighbors?’” Perhaps that mischief is induced by the Spirit of God, a kind of gentle undertow against waves of wall building and isolation. Perhaps the disciple’s calling is to “be the mischief” putting notions in the heads of all people questioning the need for walls? Anyway, here is Robert Frost’s poem.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 33-34. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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!
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.
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.
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.
It is hard to hear that word “righteousness” without the prefix “self” attached to it. The word brings to mid images of the Pharisees or, rather, our stereotypical thinking about the Pharisees. On the whole, the Pharisees were generally pretty decent folk. They are the kind of people I would prefer to have for neighbors. They bring their garbage out to the curb on the right day; keep their lawns mowed and their gardens free of weeds. You don’t have to worry about rowdy parties in the middle of the night, or teenage hard metal bands practicing in the garage on Sunday afternoon or errant baseballs careening through you thermo-pane window when you live next door to a Pharisee. On the whole, I would take the Pharisee as my neighbor any day over many of the characters Jesus was known to associate with. So what is lacking in their righteousness?
In order to answer the above question, we need to skip ahead to the end of the chapter where Jesus tells his disciples that they must “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Perfection, however, is not measured by obedience to the rules. Jesus has already pointed out that we violate the commandment against murder when we hate; we commit adultery when we lust; if we need oaths to substantiate our words, then we are demonstrating that our word is ordinarily less than true and reliable. Perfection is measured by love for enemies. Matthew 5:43-48. That is a tall order. And to be clear, by enemies Jesus does not mean people who rub you the wrong way, people who get on your nerves or people who hold opinions that you find noxious. He is talking about enemies that strike you on the cheek; enemies that threaten you with violence; enemies that would kill you given half a chance. Those are the ones Jesus calls us to love and to pray for. I don’t have enemies like that-at least not up close and personal. Of course, there are people in the world who might kill me because I am an American, because I am a Christian or because they think killing people in general somehow makes a larger ideological point. But these enemies are abstractions to me. I don’t know them apart from media images of masked men with guns in their hands and fists in the air. I don’t really know who they are, what makes them tick or why they are bent on violence.
Yet perhaps that is the point of loving them and praying for them. I have found that praying for people with whom I have conflicts forces me to examine my anger and fear. Without half trying, I start to see the world through their eyes when I pray. The more I understand about my enemy, the easier it is to understand the source of his/her anger and his/her animus toward me. I also find that the more I understand people, the less threatening they become. I discover new ways to approach them, communicate with them and negotiate with them that I never thought existed. I have toyed with the idea of holding a prayer service to pray for members of ISIS and other terrorist groups. I fear that such an activity might initially be seen as disrespectful to our troops, disloyal to our country and insulting to victims of terror. Yet if we, who follow Jesus, do not pray for reconciliation with our enemies, who will? If the Body of Christ is not prepared to place itself on the front lines of peacemaking, who else will?
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.