Archive for February, 2014

For Feb. 16, 2014: 6 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

The book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach was probably written in the second century BC, by a Hellenistic Jewish scribe who wrote not just for Jews but also for Greeks seeking answers about life and faith and God. Though this is one of the Apocrypha—the books outside the Hebrew Bible, the Torah—we in the Anglican Communion believe it to be well worth studying.

The Response                                          Psalm 119:1-8

We begin reading from Psalm 119, the longest psalm of the Bible with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza could have inspired the reading from Ecclesiasticus, with its praise of the consequences of choosing to follow God’s law.

The Epistle                                                               1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The writer of Ecclesiasticus told us that it is up to us to choose to do what is right. The Epistle continues to point out ways in which the community at Corinth is falling short of what God wants: it matters much less who gets credit for this or that ministry than that the will of God for the growth and salvation of all of us be done.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount last week (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of Moses. Now he extends the law: to be his, it is not enough to refrain from killing, adultery, or swearing falsely. Whatever we do to treat others as inferiors or objects for our gratification is wrong.

 

Ponderables

As Epiphany season continues, its themes turn from the revelation of God entering our world to the revelation that the Kingdom of God is within us, messy humans that we are. Ecclesiasticus poses this in terms of a stark choice—fire or water, death or life—that does lies in our own hands, and the psalm praises the happiness of those who choose life through obedience to the Law. Paul takes a different tack to arrive at a similar destination: we cannot earn salvation through obeying the Law, but we do have choices in how we respond to the great gift of grace—and, tellingly, in how we extend grace to others.

As Jesus says, he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the gospel for 6 Epiphany he explains: the commandments prohibit murder, adultery, and other specific major offenses, but the point of them is for us to stand in love against anything or anyone that demeans or objectifies and estranges another human being. The prescription to cut off body parts sounds ghoulish to Western ears, but in Semitic society it was a very serious matter: one ate with one’s right hand only, so the effect of having that hand cut off was to disqualify one permanently from polite society. This difficult prescription is usually taken as hyperbole, but what if it is instead irony? What if we are the Kingdom of God, and we’re called to do our utmost to stand in love against alienation, both by those who estrange others—and by those who estrange themselves?

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For Feb. 9, 2014: 5 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                        Isaiah 58:1-9a

When the people of Jacob—the inhabitants of Judah and Israel—return from exile in Babylon, they wonder why their fasting and self-punishment seems not to impress the Lord. Isaiah pulls no punches: the best sacrifice is to feed and heal and free God’s afflicted children.

The Response                                          Psalm 112:1-9

Psalm 112:1-9 praises those who fear the Lord: they will be mighty, merciful and full of compassion, generous, and just. For such upright people and through them, light will shine.

The Epistle                                                              1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In the Roman world, one function of education was to produce powerful, persuasive orators. The people of Corinth expected great speech from the apostle Paul, but were disappointed. Here Paul explains: human wisdom sheds little light on either God’s wisdom or the astonishing depth of God’s desire that we be saved.

The Gospel                                                                   Matthew 5:13-20

The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany picks up the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes. In today’s world, salt can be bought at the 99-cent store and getting light is as easy as flipping a switch, but in Jesus’ time both salt and light were precious and often difficult to obtain.

Ponderables

The readings for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of the faith: whether righteousness comes from doing good or doing good comes of being righteous.

On the one hand, Isaiah enlightens the Israelites returning from Babylon as to why God appears not to pay proper respect to their fasting and sackcloth and ashes: they are doing it for show and to get blessing and healing for themselves. Only if they bless and heal the poor and the marginalized will they receive God’s light and vindication. Similarly, the psalmist notes, only those who do good will get wealth and light and honor and remembrance in death. (It is worth noting that, by Isaiah’s time, the notion that there might be life after death did not yet figure in Jewish theology: being remembered was the best one could hope for.) In this context, Jesus’ observation that getting into heaven takes more righteousness than even the doggedly righteous scribes and Pharisees can muster is disturbing (and sometimes being disturbed is good for us).

On the other hand, Jesus tells the crowd—and us—not that they should become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but that we already are. This coheres with the idea that the passage from 1 Corinthians develops: our righteousness is God’s doing rather than ours. Then Jesus instructs us to let the light that we already are shine by doing good things. And we all know that habits, good and bad, are self-reinforcing.

Almost six hundred years ago, Martin Luther weighed in on the side of sola fide—‘only by faith’. But many of us find that the light that we shed, and the good that we’re willing to expect of others, has a bearing on the light that we’re able to receive. So what if, with righteousness received, the answer is “both”? And how do we make room for everyone’s light to shine?